Q: I know that exercise is important for weight loss, but what's the best way to go about it?
-Natalie G., Peekskill, N.Y.
If you're committed to optimal health while losing weight, you'll need to schedule exercise into your week and keep the appointment. Meaningful exercise rarely happens spontaneously. Even if you work in a physically demanding profession, you likely still need to round out your routine with a little aerobic and flexibility training. The basic weekly exercise prescription I give most patients is a combination of strength, flexibility, balance, and cardio that breaks down like this:
Aerobic: 3 hours (six 30-minute sessions such as brisk walks, or four 45-minute sessions, or three 1-hour sessions).
Strength: 1 hour (two 30-minute sessions or three 20-minute sessions).
Flexibility: 10 minutes every other day of basic yoga stretches-eight sun salutes, for example.
Balance: 30 minutes weekly; ideally spending 5 minutes a day, 6 days a week, doing something simple such as standing on one leg while brushing teeth or washing dishes.
If you want to build muscles, you have to stress them. I urge you to work with a trainer for the first few weeks to get a weight-lifting program started. If you have access to a gym, that's great. But you can also create a simple home gym by just using your own body weight (think: push-ups). There are plenty of options out there, but the basic idea is the same: You need to stress your muscles and force them to develop.
In a 20-minute weight routine (that you would commit to three times weekly), you will probably have just enough time for five different exercises with three sets, and from 8-12 reps per set. Most of us generally have stronger legs than upper bodies, so four out of the five exercises should probably focus on your arms. Keep track of your weights and reps, and try to increase one or the other each time you work out. If you can easily perform 12 reps in the first set of a given exercise, increase the weight for the second and third sets. If you can barely perform eight reps, stay at the same weight and work towards 12 reps before increasing. Try to keep the rests between sets no longer than 60 seconds.
One inexpensive and effective tool that helps stimulate muscle development-and curb carb cravings-is branched chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements. They provide an alternative source of BCAAs for fuel during exercise, so the body doesn't have to take BCAAs from muscle. Many professional athletes use BCAAs for training. I also advise them for patients who are recovering from an injury or an illness that requires the prolonged disuse of a body part (and a corresponding loss of muscle mass), such as a broken leg.
Most studies have focused on very high doses (15 grams or more) of BCAAs, but 2-4 grams twice daily of an amino acid powder-say, in a morning smoothie on weight-training days-is quite adequate for general use. Ideally, you should take one dose before exercise and one after, on an empty stomach-or at least without other proteins.
There are three amino acids in the BCAA group: L-isoleucine (50 percent), L-leucine (25 percent), and L-valine (25 percent). This combo doesn't dissolve readily in water, but it mixes well into a shake that has a thicker texture. It's also available in capsule form.
Vitamins C and B6 are synergistic nutrients for the absorption of BCAAs, so you should also take 1-3 grams daily of vitamin C divided into 2-3 doses (ideally not just plain ascorbic acid, but a formula that includes bioflavonoids for their anti-inflammatory and vasculature-healing properties) and 50-150 mg of pyridoxine (B6).
If you're making pre- and post-workout smoothies, experiment by adding some green superfoods, frozen berries, and/or a splash of flax oil, bee pollen, or aloe vera juice. If you have blood type O or B, a banana can add thick, creamy deliciousness to any smoothie, while those with blood type A should try a pineapple or nicely ripened pear.
Protein powders can help round out the amino acid profile of your power tonic. Whey protein, one of the better performance products, contains about 24 percent BCAAs. It isn't generally a problem for lactose intolerant people, but if you have a true dairy allergy and can't handle casein, pea protein might be a better option. If you choose a soy-based protein powder, find one made with organic soy to avoid GMOs.
But the most important thing is to get up and start moving. If you're not getting at least the minimum amount of exercise described above, do yourself a big favor and prioritize fitting regular workouts into your week. It's truly the best way to lose weight-and feel great.
Do you have a health question? Email "Dr. Em" at firstname.lastname@example.org; please put "Ask the Naturopath" in the subject line.