Improving your fitness and diet are common resolutions for the New Year, but can be difficult to maintain in the long-term. In order to help you get a Smart Start to 2013, our live chat on Thursday 24 January offered detailed advice ranging from what to do at the gym, how to deal with injuries, and which diets really work.
Expert David Clark, a physiologist here at AXA PPP healthcare, was on hand to answer all your questions. Here is what he had to say:
Leigh asked: I want to start the newly acclaimed fasting diet i.e. two days a week where you eat only 500 calories. Do you have any recipe recommendations for the fasting days which won't cost a fortune?
David Williams: Leigh - scallops with pancetta and leeks. Or you could try green beans, spring onions and chicken liver with a soy dressing.
832832 asked: Would you endorse the intermittent fasting diet as a way to lose weight and live longer?
David Williams: Endorse... this is a strong word. I base my advice on recent relevant research, and, whilst there has been a lot of evidence supporting intermittent fasting as a form of weight loss, it’s yet to be proven if this alone would help people to "live longer". I would say if this is something that you want to try, go for it. I know physiologists in the field that use this kind of practise as a weight loss technique. However, I would advise that you do the first one to two months under supervision and guidance of a trained professional.
Fiona asked: I have been at the gym a lot lately and seem to have hurt my lower back (especially painful when I kick during fitness classes). Should I be resting until it heals or going to the gym as normal? It is worse when I have been sitting for a while.
David Williams: I would advise you rest until the pain has eased. If it hasn't eased within four to five days I would consult your GP.
Fiona: Thanks - do you know what might be the cause?
David Williams: Fiona, it’s difficult to say without knowing your workout and exercise plan. How much did your exercise levels increase when you started to feel the pain?
Fiona: It didn't increase too much (just going from gym classes two to three times a week to four times) but I tried new classes - Metafit and Zumba. Other activities included body combat, body pump and running on the treadmill which I have been doing regularly anyway.
David Williams: Fiona - It sounds like you may have some sort of muscular injury (possibly overuse). I would advise you rest and avoid high impact activities (running, body pump) until you feel well again. As I said, if the pain persists, refer to your GP or local physiotherapist.
Fiona: Thank you, good to know I should rest. Lots of people have recommended I carry on as normal but I didn't want to mess around when it came to my back! Will stick to walking and swimming until I feel back to normal!
Rob asked: Hello, I have an underactive thyroid but I am being treated for it and have regular blood tests so I am on the right thyroxin levels. I've been going to the gym three to four times a week and eating clean since the start of the year but not seeing a lot of weight loss on the scales. Can my thyroid be to blame? Will losing weight just always be more difficult for me?
David Williams: Rob, stick with it. If you have only been "eating clean" since the start of the year you need to be aware that it can take four to six weeks for adaptation to occur. Without seeing your nutrition and exercise plan it is difficult for me to advise any more but I will say that it is important you stick with it. It is common for people with your condition to stagnate or even gain a little weight at the start of a healthier eating program - this is to do with your metabolic rate. However, your metabolism will adapt to the new diet, and you will start to burn the calories and excess body weight.
CD asked: What is the best meal to eat prior to working out in the morning to reduce stitches, etc. and improve energy?
David Williams: I would advise porridge as a pre-workout morning breakfast. However, I can’t think that any foods would help avoid stitch. Try and give yourself at least an hour after eating before training. Failing that, it is common for a lot of gym users to train fasted and eat after the gym, but you will suffer with depleted energy level during training.
Scrchngwsl asked: Are deadlifts a good exercise for strengthening your lower back or will it do more harm than good?
David Williams: Performed with the correct technique deadlifts are a fantastic way of exercising the lower back and leg muscles (hamstrings, gluts, quads). However it is essential that you are injury free and use the correct lifting technique. There are many progressions to the exercise also and its one I try and get into my workouts.
Deadlifting helps to increase stability control. While using machines to train muscles will isolate and target only a specific few muscle groups, the deadlift also involves supplementary and minor muscles called stabilizer muscles that are usually ignored by the mainstream. The lack of training of these stabilizer muscles will lead to imbalances and can lead a person beingmore susceptible to injury and unsymmetrical physique
So, when performed properly and with the correct technique, you could say I was a fan of the deadlift.
akasmadj asked: Just on deadlifts and heavy workout regimes - I've recently starting to wear insoles as my right leg is about 2cm shorter than my left, which was causing discomfort and occasional pain around my back area. Would you recommend that I rest for a while before using weights again?
David Williams: Yes, I would recommend rest and avoiding heavy weights until you have fully adjusted to using your insoles. Do not conduct heavy weight baring exercise if you are feeling any sort of pain.
Oldbs asked: Does clicking your bones/fingers deplete muscle strength?
David Williams: I highly doubt that it would do anything to deplete muscle strength as it’s the joints you are manipulating and not muscles.
Simon B asked: Any advice for vegetarians with Stoma's please? Used to enjoy nuts and many pulses but now difficult - finding it a very bland and fatty diet.
David Williams: Simon, as you will have been advised, you must avoid as much as possible foods high in fibre, very spicy or fried. Starchy foods like bread, cereal, pasta rice and potato will be beneficial for you.
BillyWizz asked: Any techniques that I can use when I am feeling completely overwhelmed with everything! I am currently trying to juggle lots of 'stuff' and sometimes feel like I am drowning.
David Williams: Trying to get some personal time, where you sit, relax and read or watch TV would be advisable. Exercise is also proven to help people de-stress, so why not go for a walk? I find it can help when I feel that things are getting too much. If you feel as if you are struggling then contact your EAP provider and they will be able to help provide a solution for you.
Claire asked: I really enjoy yoga but have real problems with my balance so I can't seem to get past the wobbling stage! Are there any other exercise/sports you would suggest I do to help improve my balance?
David Williams: Some core strengthening exercises may help you with your balance. Some useful ones can be found here: http://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/abdominalcorestrength1/a/NewCore.htm
Snobbly asked: I've tried yoga and Pilates for chronic lower back pain, but neither have proved successful in the long term. I regularly go to the osteopath who helps but it’s very expensive - any other ideas please?
David Williams: I know this is undertaken during yoga and Pilates, but regular stretching techniques performed everyday have been shown to help people with chronic back pain.
Justine Green asked: Once you have started an exercise programme, such as a circuit class, how detrimental is it in terms of loss of fitness if you miss a couple of weeks? (eg. when you go on holiday).
David Williams: A couple of weeks due to a holiday should not affect your fitness too much. However, you may experience some muscle soreness after your first classes back after your holiday
Damshal asked: I am totally confused about what is a good approach to food in order to lose weight - is it high protein, low carb, low fat, intermittent fasting, low something else? I seem to get so many conflicting messages!
David Williams: I agree, there is a lot of conflicting information out there. It is important that a good, balanced and healthy diet is adopted in order to lose weight. Good carbohydrates are wholemeal bread, rice and pasta. Sources of good protein and healthy fats can be found in oily fish and nuts. It is important to eat regularly and sensibly (including breakfast).
Damshal: Thanks Dave - to get a detailed list of 'what is a good diet' where should I look for something not just flogging the latest book?
David Williams: You can refer to the AXA heath gateway for a detailed list of what is to be consumed in a good diet and what is to be avoided.
Leeasked: Was just wondering how you tell what foods are good and bad. Is it sugar? Calories?
David Williams: On a broad spectrum I would advise consuming wholemeal products (bread, rice and pasta) and avoiding "white" products. Plenty of fruit and veg (five-a-day), too, and oily fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines) two to three times per week. Snacking on nuts (brazil, almonds, cashew) and seeds with fruit and natural yoghurt.
Sam asked: I drink 4 litres of water a day, people tell me this is not good for me as it's too much. Is this true?
David Williams: No, I would not say this is too much. I exercise at least once a day and on these days I take in 4-5 litres. On non-exercise days I take in 2-3 litres.
Lee asked: When is it ok to eat snacks, like crisps and chocolat?. Can you eat them regularly and still keep healthy?
David Williams: I would say that if you really need to eat them then use this as a treat. If you ate a pack of crisps per day try and do a day-on/day-off and substitute a healthier snack on alternate days. I take it that this is something that you are a fan of? If this is the case then there is no reason that you should cut them out of your diet, simply modify the amount you eat.
Caroline Exon asked: I am feeling really tired, lack of energy, etc.; what foods would boost my energy?
David Williams: I would advise foods with slow release carbohydrates rather than foods that will give you an energy spike. For example, wholegrain foods (oats, wholemeal bread and rice), dark green vegetables (spinach, kale and broccoli), fruits with a low GI index like berries, melons, apples and pears consumed in their fresh state.
Debbie asked: What is the recommended % body fat?
David Williams: It depends on your sex and age; could you provide me with that?
Debbie: Female and 50.
David Williams: An average female (50-59) would be between 30.1 - 33.4%. Above average 26.6-30 and well above average 21.6-26.5. I would advise being in the average to above average percentile.
Gemma Floyd: I've just started trying to lose some weight by running on my treadmill for approx.. 20 minutes at a time (hoping to get up to 30 minutes). I've done this for three weeks now at three times per week. I'm also eating healthier than previously, however I've actually put on 5lb since starting to run. Any ideas what this might be?
David Williams: Hi Gemma, this is most likely due to your metabolism taking time to adjust to the new regime of eating and exercise. This is a very common occurrence. Stick with it and after four to six weeks you should see some development. However, I would advise that you changed one of your exercise days to involve some high intensity intermittent exercise, should your health allow it.
878490 asked: When doing exercise and achieving big weight losses, should you be watching out for any vitamin deficiencies?
David Williams: Rather than vitamin deficiencies, weight loss in obese adults has been shown to increase vitamin D levels in patients that have lost 15% or more of their bodyweight. However, making sure that we get essential vitamins and minerals in our diet whilst losing weight remains essential.
878490 asked: l find my nails are rather brittle, and uneven instead of being smooth, would that be a vitamin deficiency of some type?
David Williams: This could be a vitamin deficiency... Vitamin A deficiency: No half-moons or ridged nails, brittle, peeling or splitting nails Vitamin B-12 deficiency: Nails curve down past your fingertips, flat nails, dark, and spoon shaped nails
Vitamin C deficiency: Fraying, pitted, split nails, frequent occurrence of hang nails Vitamin D deficiency: Brittle, peeling or cracking nails; however this could also be due to constant exposure to water or nail polish. It could be a fungal or bacterial infection.
Kel asked: I have problems with shin splints but am keen to get fit through walking, jogging and cycling. Are there any exercises you can recommend that will help to prevent shin splints?
David Williams: I think it is important to conduct low impact activities if you suffer from shin splints. Have you tried swimming? I would avoid jogging/running as this is high impact. Cycling, however, is a great way for exercising whilst suffering from shin splints.
Lee asked: I tend to get a lot of mouth ulcers, even though I eat well, don't drink much and I get seven to eight hours’ sleep a night. Do you know what could cause this? Can stress bring on mouth ulcers?
David Williams: Stress can cause mouth ulcers, as can hormonal changes. They can be triggered by acidic or spicy foods, and foods containing wheat flour. They can also be caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency or iron deficiency. However, if they are recurring and frequent it may be worth a trip to your GP.
Georgina Read asked: I need some eczema advice! Is there anything I can do in my diet that will prevent flare ups?
David Williams: If you have an allergy to certain foods, these can trigger flare ups. The most common foods are cow’s milk (and other dairy products), eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soya, fish and shellfish. If you suspect one of these it is best to consult your GP who will test for this allergy.
Lizzie Heeley asked: I have taken it upon myself in 2013 to run the London Marathon and training is going well (apart from the snow). However, having never run this distance before, it is hard to know the impact is will have on my body; should I take any particular precautions, above and beyond a good diet and stretching to ensure I don’t cause any harm? I have no previous history of running injuries, and am fairly fit and healthy to start.
David Williams: Make sure that your running shoes are comfortable for you and that you are properly hydrated before the race. Wear the correct clothes, and if you suffer any kind of pain/injury you must stop. Good luck, and keep up the training and good preparation.
Sadie Macleod asked: When your motivation to be healthy starts to wane, how do you keep on going and get that initial enthusiasm back?
David Williams: The key is to look at weight loss not as a jail sentence without all your favourite foods but as a time in your life where you can make changes to your lifestyle for the better and improve the quality of your health and well-being.
Attempting weight loss shouldn’t be something that pushes you away but something that encourages you to teach you to make the right choices for life. You will become more enthusiastic about weight loss if you set yourself realistic and achievable goals. There’s no point in reaching for the stars when it’s only going to set you up for failure. Smaller steps will help you see results constantly and ensure that you are more enthusiastic about the entire attempt. Instead of looking at the numbers on the scale, look at your behaviour; it’s much easier to control what you consume every day, how much exercise you do, and whether you pamper yourself a little bit from time to time. So don’t say that you are going to lose a pound every week - set a goal to eliminate white flour products from your diet one week, to drink eight glasses of water every day the next week. Make three days sugar-free the following week.
These types of goals will help you lose weight. You will be more enthusiastic because they will be easily attainable and lead to progress with your weight loss. Reward yourself when you see changes in your body weight, once a month is enough. Make these rewards something that will make you feel fantastic and do wonders for your body image. They probably shouldn’t be related to food either. A healthy reward can be booking yourself in for a full body massage or a facial or pedicure. Maybe you’d like that sexy pair of shoes that have just come into the shop. And what about visiting the hairdresser for a new hairstyle, or taking a healthy cooking class? All these things are positive ways to reward your weight loss and stay enthusiastic to keep you achieving your goals.
Keith Kendrick asked: What simple changes can I make to my lifestyle to fit exercise in to my day-to-day routines without joining a gym?
David Williams: Try and walk as much as possible. Take the stairs instead of the lift at work. If you’re nipping to the local shop for a paper then walk instead of taking the car. Set yourself targets at work; at lunch, spend half the time eating then have a walk, even if that’s just around the office. It helps with concentration too, especially if you’ve been for a walk outside.
Mumonamission asked: I try and swim when I can but what’s a good amount of exercise to do per week? Should I make sure I swim for 30 minutes for three times a week for example?
David Williams: NHS guidelines state that individuals should be active for two and half hours a week. This can be anything that raises the heart rate above a resting level. Swimming three times per week for 30 minutes is a great start. Try and build around this by trying some strenuous walking or taking the stairs when at work instead of the lift.