Nutrition & Physical Activity

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Weight training: Do I need to change my workout to see results?

Dear Reader,

The body does adapt to weight lifting, so you won't see results if you continue with the same routine. After weeks or months of training, the same exercises that once exhausted you may seem almost effortless. To experience continued improvement in fitness, you need to challenge your body by making your workouts progressively harder in one way or another.

Although people change at different rates, it's generally recommended that people make a few alterations in their program every 4 to 8 weeks for continued results. You don't need to transform your entire workout, but modifying your routine slightly will help keep your muscles challenged. Here are some basic training variables to take into consideration when you're changing your workout, but only change one variable at a time:

This refers to the number of times you work a muscle per week; 2 - 3 times per week is optimal. Muscles need rest between workouts, so leave at least 24 - 48 hours between training the same muscle.

This refers to the weight used to perform the exercise, which may be in pounds or kilograms. The weight will affect the number of repetitions and the number of sets you're able to do. Beginners should use weights that allow them to do 12 - 15 repetitions and 1 to 2 sets of each activity. Use trial and error to find the appropriate resistance level: decrease the weight if you can only lift it a few times; increase the weight if you can easily lift it sixteen times or more. If/When you're upping the amount of resistance you use, do not increase it by more than 5 percent per week.

Also called "reps," this term refers to one complete action of an exercise. The heavier the weight, the fewer the number of repetitions you need to perform. Beginners should start with 1 to 2 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions. The last repetition should be somewhat difficult to finish — again, change the weight you use if this number of reps is too easy or hard.

Training Sets
These are a pre-determined number of repetitions of a specific activity. Beginners start with 1 to 2 sets of each exercise and increase the number of sets as they become stronger.

Rest and Recovery
This refers to the amount of time between sets and between training sessions. As you increase resistance, you'll need longer periods of rest, so your muscles can recover. Rest for at least 30 seconds between sets and for 24 to 48 hours between training sessions for the same muscle group.

Training Method
As you become stronger, you may progress to more advanced variations of activities for each muscle group. Performing such exercises stresses the muscle(s) in slightly different ways.

For even more variety, try throwing some of the following suggestions into the mix:

  • Work a different combination of muscle groups each day — i.e., back and biceps one day; chest, shoulders, and triceps one day; and legs and abdominals one day.
  • Do a total body workout 2 or 3 times a week.
  • Change the order in which you perform exercises (although larger muscles should be trained first).
  • Increase (or decrease) the number of activities for each muscle group.
  • Vary the type of exercises you do — i.e., progress to more advanced activities; use free weights; and/or vary the machines you use.

Keep in mind that if you increase resistance, you need to decrease repetitions and increase recovery time between exercises. If you add more sets, you'll need to decrease the number of repetitions. It may help to work with a Certified Personal Trainer to create a schedule you can work with over a period of months, tailored to your needs, abilities, and fitness goals.


Is margarine really better than butter?

Dear Baffled Over Butter,

You may be baffled over butter, but it sounds like you've got a good grip on chemistry! Some of the margarines sold in stores today are still made from oil that has been infused with hydrogen atoms, firming it up into a semi-hard or solid form at room temperature. This process is known as hydrogenation, and it allows the margarine to contain less saturated fat than butter. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also forms something known as trans fat, which actually does more damage to your body than saturated fat. (Both butter and margarine end up containing the same amount of total fat.)

Margarines made from hydrogenated oil usually appear in a solid stick form, similar to how butter is sold. Other kinds of margarines on the market today are made from non-hydrogenated oil, making them softer in texture and lower in calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and total fat. These soft margarines, which are commonly packaged in tubs and known as "soft-tub margarines," replace the hydrogenation process with small amounts of modified palm kernel and palm oil in order to make it softer and easier to spread.

Unlike margarine, butter isn't made from vegetable oil. Instead, butter is prepared from cream, contains saturated fat, and, because it's made from an animal source, also has cholesterol. Both saturated fat and cholesterol raise unhealthy cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Margarine is manufactured from vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, or safflower oil, among others. Since margarine is based on plant sources, it doesn't contain cholesterol.

Because margarines don't contain cholesterol and are now made without trans fat, the American Heart Association recommends that soft margarine can be used instead of butter in recipes. Choose a margarine that contains less than two grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, no trans fat, and has liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient.

If all this chat about fat has made you curious (or confused), check out Good vs. bad fats and "Good" and "bad" cholesterol in Alice!'s archives for more information.


Gymtimidation — intimidated by working out at health clubs

Dear Reader,

You are already on the right track. Exercising has countless benefits for health, happiness, and if it matters to you, appearance. It sounds as though you know what you need to do, but want some suggestions on where to do it.

It's true, some fitness centers can feel intimidating. However, most everyone at the gym has had that same feeling at one time or another; it's common to feel nervous about joining a new gym, regardless of body size. In reality, fitness center users come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. If you have already found a facility, know that many fitness centers offer a complimentary training session or two to show you how to use the machines and help you devise a workout plan. A quality facility hires employees with a full understanding of "gymphobia." Investing some time to get oriented can help relieve some of the anxiety you experience during future visits as you'll be able to strut right in and jump into your workout.

If you're still searching for a fitness home, consider that YMCAs, YWCAs, local community centers, and independent gyms often feel more down to earth and less intimidating than many larger, chain gyms. As you are considering which facility to join, it's certainly fair to ask for a tour and a trial membership. Visit the location at different times of the day as early morning exercisers may seem very different than a mid-afternoon or late evening crowd. Look around for members who you feel are similar to you and ask them about their experience. Another option may be a college in your neighborhood. Some colleges offer community members use of their facilities for a nominal fee. Columbia students can check out all the great options at Dodge Fitness Center. New York City residents can also join the city's rec centers, which offer weights, cardio machines and classes, and pools for a low membership fee. Don't forget about exercising outside: running, biking, hiking, and walking immediately come to mind. Fresh air does the soul good.

If you've ever played a sport or wanted to learn a new one, consider joining a team or a league. There are a wide range of options, from dodge ball or softball to tennis and bowling. Leagues often offer options for beginners and seasoned athletes alike with the added bonus of meeting some new friends.

Just like with your first day of a new job or school, you start out not knowing many people and not being sure of what to do, but, within a short time, all that changes. Going to a gym, a team practice, or to the park to run won't be too much different. Think of your "gymtimidation" reduction efforts as a part of your entire workout — the more you stick with it, the easier it will get. And remember, health clubs are places to get and stay healthy — not beauty pageants or Olympic competitions. Gym'ers who disagree might consider shaving a few pounds off their egos.

Finally, remind yourself that working out is something you've committed to do. Schedule it on your calendar and grab a partner — you can encourage and motivate each other.


October 15, 2009

Dear Alice,

I am skinny and a YOGA TEACHER... but I still felt intimidated going into my gym the first time two years ago, just cuz I'd never done it. Trust me, even if it's all in your head, just...

Dear Alice,

I am skinny and a YOGA TEACHER... but I still felt intimidated going into my gym the first time two years ago, just cuz I'd never done it. Trust me, even if it's all in your head, just keep on keepin' on. Everyone kinda feels self conscious at the gym. :)

May 19, 2004

Dear Alice,

Another thing to try: do your workout at the gym's slowest hours at first, until you feel comfortable there and get into your routine. Go early and avoid lunchtime and any time...

Dear Alice,

Another thing to try: do your workout at the gym's slowest hours at first, until you feel comfortable there and get into your routine. Go early and avoid lunchtime and any time after 5, when most people get off work. The less people that are there, the less intimidated you will feel. Good Luck!


August 10, 2001


Dear Jitters,

Do what I did: Get yourself an MP3 player or portable CD player (preferably a newer one with less inclination to skip) — pop in your favorite tunes (something that really...

Dear Jitters,

Do what I did: Get yourself an MP3 player or portable CD player (preferably a newer one with less inclination to skip) — pop in your favorite tunes (something that really pumps you up and gets you going!), PUT ON THOSE EARPHONES FOR YOUR ENTIRE WORKOUT and TUNE OUT the rest of the world, including those you perceive to be criticizing you. Tune into yourself and your workout, and before you know it, you will see results. Remember, it's your workout; it's YOUR life! Good luck! :)

What's more important: Calories or fat grams?

Dear Reader,

A calorie is the standard unit for measuring energy released from energy-yielding nutrients, such as fat, protein, and carbohydrate. Fat is an essential nutrient that helps the body transport and absorb fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., A, D, E, and K), among other functions. Whereas proteins and carbohydrates have only four calories of energy per gram, fat has nine. Food labels are federally standardized to help make it easier for the consumer to know what's in a particular food. You can calculate the percentage of calories from fat by looking at the column marked "Percent Daily Value" for total fat and simply add up these percentages. It's recommended that fat make up no more than 30 percent of your daily diet (meaning less than or equal to 30 percent of total calories a day from fat).

Although it is important to watch both calories and fat grams, it's best to focus on  the total number of calories consumed, which often seems to be forgotten. With the introduction of low-fat and fat-free versions of many common foods, you'd expect people to lose weight. Instead, many are either staying at the same weight or even gaining weight. Sometimes you can eat more of these foods than their full-fat versions for the same number of calories. However, sometimes low-fat foods contain more sugar than their full-fat cousins, and hence as many calories per serving. Ultimately, if you eat more calories than your body expends, regardless of whether these calories come from fat, protein, or carbohydrates, you will gain weight. Unused energy is converted and stored as excess body fat.

The amount of calories a person needs is based on body weight, age, gender and physical activity level. Generally, 1200 to 1400 calories per day is considered low, and anything above 2400 is considered too much. To find out how many calories you should be getting a day, check out the MyPlate website. This USDA-sponsored site will ask you to input your age, gender, weight, height and physical activity level in order to determine what caloric intake will be right for you. You can also check out Ideal Caloric Intake? in the Go Ask Alice! archives for more information on calorie counting.


Benefits of eating fiber

Dear Reader,

As they say, everything in moderation — including fiber! Eating enough fiber can have many health benefits, while too much may have consequences. By learning how much fiber you need, how much is in your food, and adjusting your diet accordingly, you’ll be able to strike a balance that’s ideal for your body (and your bowels). 

Fiber is basically composed of plant-based food matter (fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes) that can’t be broken down by your digestive system. Whole foods contain both soluble (dissolves in water) and insoluble (does not dissolve in water) fiber. Although the recommendations below don’t distinguish between these two types of fiber, they are different and have distinct functions — soluble fiber helps to reduce cholesterol and glucose levels, and insoluble fiber helps with constipation by increasing fecal bulk. 

Overall, fiber may lead to many health benefits, such as:

  • Keeping you regular. Fiber decreases the risk of constipation by bulking up and softening your stool.
  • Maintaining your bowel health. Fiber may prevent the development of diverticulitis and hemorrhoids. It has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in some cases.
  • Lowering cholesterol and blood glucose levels. By reducing bad (LDL) cholesterol and blood glucose levels, soluble fiber also leads to a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and type II diabetes.
  • Controlling your appetite/weight. Foods that contain fiber are typically low in fat, energy-dense, take more time to chew, keep you full for longer, and block some of the digestion of fats and proteins.
  • Preventing cancer. Fiber consumption may lower the risk for colorectal cancer, but the evidence is not yet conclusive.

Curious if you are getting enough fiber in your diet? You can use either the USDA Food List or WebMD’s Fiber-o-Meter to figure out the fiber content of the foods you eat and get suggestions for high-fiber foods. Making a habit out of reading the nutrition facts on food labels will also help. Generally, women need less fiber than men, and those aged 51 years or older need less than younger individuals. The following table can give you an idea of how much fiber you need on a daily basis:


Age 50 or younger

Age 51 or older


38 grams

30 grams


25 grams

21 grams

Source: Institute of Medicine

However, having too much fiber in one's diet can cause problems. When the intake of fiber is too high, it can replace other energy and nutrients that you need in your diet. Some insoluble fibers bind certain minerals, including calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and iron. Too much fiber can also cause abdominal discomfort, gas, and diarrhea, and block the gastrointestinal (GI) tract if you add too much fiber too fast. For some, fiber supplements may potentially cause additional, more severe side effects such as allergic reactions and asthma, gastrointestinal distress, and drug and nutrient interactions. If you feel that you might benefit from taking fiber supplements, it's best to speak with a health care provider first to make sure it’s right for you.

So, before you load up on fiber, try adding it to your diet gradually, so that your GI tract has time to adapt. You'll also want to drink lots of fluids to keep the fiber soft. Choosing a variety of soluble and insoluble fiber-rich food sources, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, and legumes (beans and peas) will ensure that not only will you get a good mix of fiber, but beneficial nutrients, too. Remember that brown rice and 100 percent whole wheat bread have more fiber than white rice or white bread. Also, eating the skins of your fruits and vegetables whenever possible can also help increase fiber intake. If you're a Columbia student and need advice or more information about incorporating fiber-rich foods into a balanced diet, you can make an appointment with a health care provider or a registered dietitian by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Hope this was helpful!


Better to drink warm rather than cold water?

Dear J,

Staying well-hydrated is extremely important for an active athlete. It's great that you want to make staying hydrated as easy and healthy for your body as possible. In this case though, you're in luck — health and preference coincide!

In a happy coincidence of what feels good and what's good for you, it's actually cold water that's recommended when exercising vigorously. During intense physical activity, the body's core temperature rises above the normal 98.6°F (37°C). Drinking cool water lowers the body's temperature and helps it settle back to its normal range. Studies have also shown that cold water 41°F (5°C) is absorbed more quickly from the stomach than warm, abating dehydration and allowing you to play harder and enjoy your game of soccer even more. Sweating also helps to lower the body's temperature, but through sweating we lose a lot of water, so it's important to keep drinking.

The body is smart and often craves what it needs. That doesn't mean you should have an ice cream sundae every time you get a hankering, but in this case, cold water is what you want and cold water is what your body uses best. That said, if the only water around is warm, or if some prefer it warm, that's ok too. The main point is — listen to your body, stay hydrated, and have fun!


Ephedrine (ma huang) — Uses and dangers?

Dear Reader,

It's smart of you to ask, since there's been considerable controversy over the safety and use of ephedra. In fact, there's been enough reported cases of harmful side-effects and even deaths associated with ephedra that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to prohibit the sale of ephedra in the United States in 2004. When the substance was re-evaluated in 2007, the FDA chose to continue the ban.

Ephedrine, also known by its traditional Chinese name, ma huang, is an extract of the desert shrub, Ephedra sinica. Originally ephedrine was used to relieve asthma symptoms, which it accomplished through dilating the bronchioles that supply the lungs with oxygen. But in the late nineties ephedrine gained popularity for its stimulant properties, raising blood pressure and heart rate, and stimulating thermogenesis, or heat production, actions similar to those produced by other stimulant drugs like amphetamines. Because of its heat-producing, calorie-burning, and appetite-suppressing qualities, ephedrine became a popular fat-burning supplement. Prior to 2004, the drug was available in scores of nutritional supplements, energizers, and dietary teas, as well as in herbal ecstasy, which was the impetus for its controversy.

However, on April 12, 2004 the FDA made any products containing ephedrine illegal for over-the-counter sales after it "...received an increasing number of reports of adverse reactions. These reported reactions vary from the milder adverse effects known to be associated with sympathomimetic stimulants (e.g., nervousness, dizziness, tremor, alterations in blood pressure, headache, gastrointestinal distress, etc.) to chest pain, myocardial infarction (heart attack), hepatitis, stroke, seizures, psychosis, and death." Some 32 deaths were attributed to this drug.

In fact, many diet drugs are found to be unsafe, and are often taken off the market once their brief stint of popularity has proved harmful. If you're interested in weight management or loss, try the following exercise and nutrition recommendations:

  • Eat breakfast — this jump starts your metabolism for the day.
  • Experiment with eating five to six small meals instead of three large meals a day to help keep metabolism high.
  • Participate in regular aerobic exercise, which helps to reduce stored fat. This activity also allows your body to continue to expend calories at a high rate for a short amount of time after exercise.
  • Participate in a weight lifting program to build more lean muscle mass since this will increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR), thereby expending calories even when you are not exercising.
  • You can also make an appointment with a health care provider or a nutritionist if you're wondering what a healthy weight is for you, or if you want guidance in planning a diet or exercise plan. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment by logging into Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-2284. Students on the CUMC campus can also make an appointment with a provider or nutritionist by calling the Student Health Service at 212-305-3400.

Thanks for asking, and take care!


Wants to build muscle mass through weight lifting and a healthy diet

Dear Reader,

A healthy, varied diet of nutritious foods along with an appropriate exercise program can help get your bod in buff condition; however, remember that women in general do not bulk up to the same degree as many men do when they work out to increase muscle mass.

The road to muscle mass must begin with a sound weight training program. A program of lifting every other day, or doing a lower body workout one day and an upper body workout the other day, is recommended. The minimum frequency is two times a week. Remember, never work the same muscle group two days in a row. Your muscles need 24 to 48 hours of recovery time before the next life. In lifting weights to build muscle mass and strength, research supports three sets of 8 to12 repetitions max. (This means you can't lift the 13th time.) If you are a beginner, begin at a weight that you can lift 15 times before feeling fatigue, and gradually increase the weight and decrease the repetitions as the weeks go by. For more information on weight lifting, read Weight training: Do I need to change my workout to see results? and Weightlifting and still fat.

Adding aerobic activity to your weight lifting workouts will help reduce body fat stores. An aerobic workout of 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week is your target. Of course, you can build up to that ideal over time. For more information on aerobic exercise, read  Minimum and maximum heart rate and aerobic exercise.

Search through Go Ask Alice!'s Nutrition & Physical Activity archive for questions and answers that describe how to eat a healthy diet; in particular, read Food Guidelines — How much is a serving?. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also has information on what types of foods might help support healthy muscle mass, like complex carbohydrates and foods with healthy fats.

Good luck on your road to more muscle mass!


Is juice as good as whole fruit?

Dear Joyful Juicer,

Juicers can be a great low calorie, high nutrient, tasty treat. However, they don’t generally carry all the benefits of eating the original fruit or veggie from whence it came.

If you've made juice, you know that it takes a lot of fruit to make a container of juice. Usually, juicers extract the juice and some pulp from fruits and/or vegetables. You’ll get all of the vitamins, minerals, beneficial plant chemicals (phytochemicals), and carbohydrates in juice that's extracted from a whole fruit. However, you won’t get much of the fiber, and depending on the fruit, you may not get any of it.

Fiber aids in the digestive process. It acts sort of like a scrub brush for your intestines and speeds up the movement of waste through your system. It also can fill you up, and may help protect against certain cancers. Fiber in fruit is found in the membranes between sections, the white part around the outside (as in oranges and grapefruits), the seeds, the skin, and the peels. For example, orange juice contains no fiber (even if it has pulp) because the fiber is found in the membrane, which is lost during the process of juicing.

It is also important to remember that juice is not a low calorie drink. An eight ounce glass of orange juice contains 110 calories — the equivalent of two oranges (each contains about 60 calories). But you won't feel as filled up from juice since it doesn't contain any fiber. For many people, drinking a caloric beverage, such as juice, isn't as satisfying as eating the same amount of calories in food. For those who need to increase caloric intake — such as athletes, children, or teens — juice is a great choice.

Fresh juice is certainly tasty and an excellent source of many nutrients. Less stable vitamins, such as vitamin C, are not compromised in fresh juice as they may be in some processed varieties. Also, watch for added sugar in many processed juices that can increase caloric content.

In general, juice is just fine. But if fiber’s what you’re after, go for the whole fruit or veggie over the liquefied form. Happy juicing!


Will sex-ercise shed those extra pounds?

Dear Curious,

Burn, baby burn — talk about a great workout! While you may experience some of the same physical effects during sex as you would during a vigorous workout (sweating, rapid heartbeat), you may not want to rely on sex as a main source of exercise.

It is estimated that the average 175-pound person burns 150 to 200 calories during 30 to 40 minutes of sex. Of course this will vary, depending on a person's weight, the type of sexual activities involved, and a person's overall fitness level. When compared with activities such as running, cycling, or rollerblading, however, sex does not burn as many calories. A research article on sex and the heart suggests that the maximum energy expenditure during sex occurs during orgasm but returns to normal within two to three minutes after. So, while you may burn more calories during orgasm, this higher rate of metabolism is not sustained after orgasm has ended.

Keep in mind that the number of calories burned during sex depends on a variety of factors, including duration, intensity, length of orgasm, type of sexual activity (i.e., oral, vaginal, anal), and position. Individual factors such as age, weight, and body composition also influence how many calories are burned during sex as with any other physical activity. It may be helpful to check out What exactly does moderate intensity mean? in the Go Ask Alice! fitness and nutrition archives for more information on energy expenditure and how it is calculated.

If you are interested in finding ways to burn calories and/or achieve a higher level of fitness, you may want to consider starting/maintaining a regular exercise program. If you are a student at Columbia, you can check out the offerings at the Dodge Fitness Center and/or join the  CU Move initiative.  CU Move encourages members of the Columbia community to engage in active lives that include regular physical activity. The program provides participants with motivation and incentives to be active throughout the year. You can also check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more information on physical activity and calorie-burning.

So, while sex-ercise may not be the primary option for shedding pounds, you can still enjoy sex for the other benefits it provides.


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