Yoga: How to start and sustain a healthy and holistic practice

I’m Kaitlyn, a writer, traveler, and serial exercise dabbler. Over the past three months, I’ve gone from complete yoga novice to nurturing a daily practice. In this seven-part series, I review the best resources, tips, apps, and gear to help even the most stressed-out and stiff-backed desk workers start a healthy, holistic, and life-changing yoga practice.

Here’s are the other posts I’ve written so far in this series:

Too busy to read the whole article? [1800 words, an 8-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • This is part 1 of a 7-part series. Follow-up articles will be linked here as they are published.
  • Habits are built through a series of trigger->routine->reward.
  • I test out DoYouYoga’s 30-day video program to see if it can help me build a habit.
  • I like the program, but I don’t like that it doesn’t give me time to meditate, which is very important to me.

Part 1 (of 7): How you can build a yoga habit in 15 minutes a day.

I don’t have any particular qualifications to write about yoga. My lifestyle is unremarkable—I don’t smoke, but I do eat meat and drink alcohol a few times a week. I over-salt my food. I stay up too late, I work too much, and I can’t remember the last time I woke up for the sunrise.

I used to live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a laid-back city with a yoga scene of international repute. I would drop into a class every now and then, get a rush of endorphins, hug my teacher and pledge to be back in a few days. Then I would get busy and stressed out and forget. When I couldn’t maintain a perfect lifestyle and schedule, I’d get embarrassed and stop trying. This on-and-off cycle lasted for years.

With most fitness routines I get attached to keeping an ideal schedule, but when I can’t keep it up, my enthusiasm wanes. This makes it hard to make a daily practice stick.

Instead of rigorously planning my practice, I needed to make it into a habit. The Habit Loop helped me understand how a habit works—habits are caused by a Trigger, followed by a Routine, and that then leads to a Reward. For example, every morning I wake up (Trigger), make coffee (Routine), and drink it (Reward—both because of the caffeine and the comfort of fulfilling the habit with delicious hot coffee).

I already knew the Reward for doing yoga (it feels amazing). Routine gets more complicated, simply because there are so many kinds of yoga, and so many ways of doing it. We’ll cover some of the variations later on, but since we’re all beginners here, just trust me: it never ends. I realized my fitness plans never quite work because the best way to start a habit that sticks is actually to start very, very small.

Yoga instructor Laurence Gilliot agrees. “If I don’t feel like it, I tell myself ‘Ok, just five minutes.’ Then I start and often I end up doing more than five min. The hardest part is to get yourself onto the mat.”

“The hardest part is to get yourself onto the mat.”

So I definitely needed something short. I needed a quick routine that would help me build the fundamentals and the confidence to move to a longer practice later. Yoga is supposed to be fun and feel good, but like any new skill, there is a learning curve. I didn’t want my daily routine to be so challenging that it left me discouraged or constantly sore—I wanted to see if yoga fit as part of my daily life.

I started with the DoYouYoga 30 Day Yoga Challenge. In this program, instructor Erin Motz leads a different 10-20 minute routine every day, designed to introduce a total beginner to some basics of yoga and let them feel the benefits. You can either sign up for a daily email or find all the videos here or on YouTube. The daily email became my Trigger, and the video my short, achievable Routine.

DoYouYoga

30 days of free videos, via daily emails or download when-you-want

Price: Free

Pros:

  • No-pressure, short intro to yoga, with a motivational 30-day format
  • Easy way to sample some different kinds of yoga and different poses
  • If you’re sore, try a targeted Day to get straight into your problem area
  • After 15 minutes you feel the reward of the practice – and often want to do more

Cons:

  • A 15 minute practice doesn’t have the space to spend much time in any pose
  • Many comments were asking for advice when they found a pose difficult or painful – A teacher will be able to make adjustments if you’re doing something incorrectly and safely push you to go farther, but a video can’t
  • Since they are “bite-size,” the videos often do not make a coherent sequence if you double up, so if you want a longer practice, find a longer video class (more about this next time)

My experience with DoYouYoga’s 30-day challenge

Day 1: Opening up hips and back helps people (like me) who sit a lot. My lower back felt loose and warm with fresh blood flow all day. It’s also interesting to see that one side of your body can be more flexible than the other.

I liked the idea that committing to 15 minutes of practice every day would make it easier to add more time. Everyone can find 15 minutes each day to spare, right?

Day 2: Spending a lot of time in Downward Dog used to be impossible for me—my shoulders would pop out of joint and I would topple to the ground. It looks and feels like I am weak or off-balance, but actually I have an abnormality in my arms. If I hadn’t had a teacher show me how to work around this problem in a live class, I wouldn’t have been able to finish even this short routine, and I would have been totally demoralized.

All video classes have this disadvantage—they cannot accelerate your practice the way a few sessions with a live teacher can, especially if you have an injury or a health problem to work around.

All video classes have this disadvantage—they cannot accelerate your practice the way a few sessions with a live teacher can, especially if you have an injury or a health problem to work around.

Day 3: Focusing on the back and posture was a good counterpoint to days 1&2

It turns out even finding 15 minutes was tough. I would plan to wake up early, but end up sleeping in and then drinking more coffee instead. At night I would decide to meet up with some friends …

Day 4 & 5: I got busy. And the internet was too slow.

How frustrating. Why would I procrastinate about doing yoga? I like doing yoga… right?

The daily reminder email wasn’t helping – if I couldn’t start the video right away, it got buried in my inbox.

I was buying into my old habit again. I got anxious that I wouldn’t be able to do a routine the “right” way or that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the practice. Then I would avoid yoga. I needed to let go of these ideas before I could move forward.

The second time I tried to do Days 4, 5, and 6: The YouTube commentators and I are all surprised at how sore the short yoga-and-Pilates influenced routines make our abs and core. Day 6, focusing on the lower back, is a great relief.

So I gave up on the perfect schedule and squeezed my practice in between work and errands. I wasn’t sure how this would work with a longer daily practice, but I was finally doing yoga every single day, whether first thing in the morning or in the afternoon after hitting a deadline. This really built my confidence.

Pro tip: Instead of doing a routine when I got an email, I left my yoga mat unrolled on the floor where I would see it when I had time to practice.

Day 7: Crow pose always looked impossible and somewhat boggling. A clear explanation of a sequence and which muscles to strengthen made this seem much more achievable. Day 8 also demystifies Wheel pose.

I started to look forward to the daily video, and soon I was spending more time on the mat. I would start with some stretches at first and revisit favorite poses after a video ended. Some days I doubled up or tripled up, and I also stopped feeling guilty if I had to skip a day.

Day 9: More movement and the introduction of more balance poses. I love balance poses, and I really like doing these at home where I can control the length of the pose (and no one sees me fall over!)

Days 10 & 11: Some relaxing stretching through the side body followed by a restorative routine with plenty of time to unwind and quiet down.

I was missing something, though. My favorite thing about yoga is that focusing on your practice naturally quiets your mind down and moves you into a meditation.

Laurence calls yoga a “Meditation in motion” and says, “When I start my practice, I usually still have thoughts flashing through my mind. When I start to focus on my breath and movement, I get into ‘the zone’—I just become the movement. My mind slows down and is concentrated on what’s happening in the present. Stillness comes. If I am struggling with a question or a challenge in my life, in this moment of stillness, the answer arises by itself. This is a magical moment.”

In only 15 minutes I really couldn’t get “in the zone.” Meditation is a major part of the yoga experience, and it’s missing from these 15-minute videos, I think simply due to the short formats.

Pro tip: Consider pausing the video for a few minutes occasionally if you want more quiet space.

Day 12: How embarrassing. I hurried through the hand and arm sequence that looked “easy” and ended up straining my hand. Between that and the intense hip openers on Day 13, I was ready for a recovery day. These were good reminders to keep listening to my body, not my ideal of what I thought I should be doing.

After about two weeks, I’d learned that I could keep up with a regular practice and get excited about getting on the mat each day. I was willing to commit to 15 minutes of practice, and I often did 30-45 minutes once I’d started. I had also built the confidence to start doing longer routines. I was ready for more.

What I learned from 15 minutes a day for 15 days

1) Just start doing it! This isn’t the time to strategize or plan. Go to the videos or sign up for the daily emails. Do one video today, while you are thinking about it.

2) There is no way to “Win” the 30 Day Challenge, so treat the format as a guideline, not a rule. Do two in a day if you want. Pause the videos to stay in a pose longer if you feel like it. Try to stay roughly in sequence (don’t just jump to the end), but you can explore what you are interested in that day. This isn’t how the program is designed, (and, again, I am not a yoga teacher) but I got more out of these videos by using them as a jumping-off point, then listening to what I needed.

3) Conversely, if the 30 Day format is motivational and comfortable for you, stick with it—what do I know?

References

  1. Laurence Gilliot, interview. With six years’ dedicated practice of yoga with a wide variety of styles and gifted teachers, Laurence’s classes are inspired by Anusara, Vinyasa, Restorative yoga, Yin yoga and Ayurveda. Laurence has also studied Buddhist mindfulness meditation on several retreats with Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh, co-facilitates a weekly meditation group and combines the Eastern practice of Buddhist psychology with the Western practice of Non-Violent Communication to coach both individuals and groups towards more fulfilled and joyful lives.

The Best Nonnutritive Sweetener

We dig through troves of research and decades of legislative battle to find the best nonnutritive sugar substitute, taking into account taste, safety, and overall effect on health.

Too busy to read the whole article? [3000 words, a 15-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • There are two main types of low-calorie sweetener: sugar alcohols (polyols) and “nonnutritive” or “intense” sweeteners
  • I picked Splenda over dozens of other candidates because it’s readily available, easy to use, and has been thoroughly tested for safety.
  • Erythritol, a sugar alcohol, tastes more like sugar than any other alternative and has no measurable calories, but it’s a little pricey and could use some more testing for long-term effects.
  • Stevia has been widely praised for having health benefits, but mass-produced stevia in the U.S. is largely a processed chemical with questionable nutritional value. It’s hard to recommend any whole Stevia extracts in the U.S. without additional testing and research.
  • Looking at the bigger picture, the scientific community is still divided on whether replacing sugar with a nonnutritive sweetener actually helps prevent disease or manage weight, so if that’s your goal, you may want to consider a different strategy.

Here are some of the headlines that have been making the rounds about how much sugar we eat: Sugar is “toxic.”It’s more addictive than cocaine. It may be the real cause behind America’s obesity epidemic.

Read more about “natural” alternatives to sugar.

So are there any sugar substitutes worthy of buying? After looking at the five main nonnutritive sweeteners on the market as well as over a dozen less-known options, I came to strong conclusion:

The Best Nonnutritive Sugar Substitute:

Splenda (Sucralose)

$16 for the equivalent of 10 lbs

splenda

The best nonnutritive sweetener for most people is sucralose, often sold under the brand name Splenda. It’s easy to find, relatively cheap, tastes pretty good, and can be used in most cases just like sugar.

From a health standpoint, sucralose is the most widely-studied sweetener with the fewest reported negative effects. It has no significant calories and no measurable impact on metabolism.

There’s a chance that other sweeteners such as those derived from Stevia might some day trump sucralose, but for now, sucralose leads in all areas. I would particularly keep an eye on multi-sweetener blends, such as those containing erythritol, my runner up choice.

Also good, but needs sweetening help and more health research:

Erythritol

$20 for 2.5 lbs (equivalent to around 2lbs of sugar)

erythritol

Erythritol is a type of sugar alcohol or polyol. But, unlike most sugar alcohols, erythritol has no effective calories and none of the bowel problems caused by other sugar alcohols. With that being said, it’s also hard to get, expensive, and can cause intestinal discomfort and allergic reactions in some. It hasn’t been as carefully studied as sucralose, so while it seems very promising, I expect new research to come out as erythritol gains popularity.

Now that you know my conclusions, the rest of this article will be about how I tested and evaluated my research.

Nonutritive sweeteners have significantly fewer calories than normal sugar

When I researched all the “natural” alternatives to sugar, I found that there aren’t any great substitutes for plain white sugar, but that honey and brown rice syrup are worth trying in some cases. So, if other caloric sweeteners don’t hold the answer to the sugar controversy, will it help to try a nonutritive substitute? First, let’s talk about what these sweeteners are and how they came into being.

There are two types of sugar alternatives that contain fewer calories than sugar itself. Sugar alcohols or polyols are made from chemically-manipulated sugar molecules. Most polyols deliver fewer calories than sugar to achieve the same sweetening effect, though it depends on the particular polyol (more on that later). The other nonnutritive sweeteners are a family of “intense sweeteners” that may contain some calories, but that are so sweet, they make essentially no noticeable change to metabolism when used in reasonable amounts. Both intense sweeteners and polyols might be referred to as “artificial sweeteners.”

Sugar Alcohols: Hard-to-digest chemical cousins of sugar

You’re more likely to see the term “sugar alcohol” on a package than “polyol”, but I think “sugar alcohol” is somewhat of a misnomer. Sugar alcohols are so named because on one end, they look chemically similar to an alcohol (like ethanol), while on the other they resemble a standard saccahride. Since these chemical cousins of sugar don’t behave anything like alcohol, I think a much better name for the stuff is their other name, “polyol.” Here’s a breakdown of the polyols most often used as sugar substitutes:

Ingredient Sweetness Relative GI Cal/g
Sucrose 100% 1 4
Maltitol Syrup 75% .87 3
Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysate 33% .65 2.8
Maltitol 75% .60 2.7
Xylitol 100% .22 2.5
Isomalt 55% .15 2.1
Sorbitol 60% .15 2.5
Lactitol 35% .10 2
Mannitol 60% 0 1.5
Erythritol 70% 0 0.2

[Table adapted from about.com]

Of these, the most commonly used are sorbitolxylitol, and erythritol.

what happens when lactose-intolerant people drink milk? Same thing goes for eating too much polyol sweetener.

The common problem among most polyols is that they can cause intestinal distress. That’s because while we do possess the enzymes necessary to digest real sugars, we don’t have the enzymes necessary to digest polyols. The only way our guts can deal with them is through bacterial fermentation. And when we digest food through fermentation, the result can be pain, diarrhea, and gas.

Think about it this way: what happens when lactose-intolerant people drink milk? Same thing goes for eating too much polyol sweetener.

But erythritol might be the one shining star in this family of sweeteners

Here are the facts about erythritol:

  • Erythritol is around 70% as sweet as sugar with practically zero caloric impact.
  • When fed to healthy adults, erythritol had no impact on insulin or other important hormones that are usually driven up by sugar intake.1, 2
  • That’s probably because about 80% of ingested erythritol is excreted without being metabolized.3, 4
  • Then what about all that erythritol that floats in your blood stream? Short-term human studies showed minimal effects.5, 6
  • And long-term animal studies haven’t shown any evidence of toxicity.7, 8
  • There have been a few reported cases of allergic reaction to erythritol. The number now is few, though it’s unknown whether reactions would increase if erythritol became more popular.9, 10, 11

For all these reasons, I would easily classify erythritol as the most promising of the sugar alcohols/polyols, though the allergic reactions currently reported should be more carefully studied.

Nonnutritive Sweeteners

Nonnutritive sweeteners are sweeteners that essentially contribute no measurable addition to energy intake (calories) when used in normal amounts. That’s because most of these compounds are many hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. You use so little to get the desired level of sweetness, the calories don’t matter.

When considering the nutrition of nonnutritive sweeteners, you need to ask two questions: (1) is it safe? and (2) is it better for me than sugar?

Is it Safe?

The Food and Drug Administration of the United States recognizes several nonnutritive sweeteners as “Generally Recognized as Safe” or GRAS. These include Aspartame, Saccharin, SucraloseAcesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame K), and Neotame. In the case of sweeteners, the public is actually benefiting from the powers of large corporations. The nonnutritive sweetener companies want the government to label their products safe, but sugar producers would love to see all these sweeteners banned. The result is that the FDA has been able to analyze troves of research on both sides of the debate.

I drew most of my conclusions from these already well-documented controversies.

Aspartame

First introduced in 1974, then banned over concerns about brain damage. In 2007, a review of existing research on Aspartame concluded that “the weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.”12. The argument from the anti-aspartame side would qualify, though, that most studies on Aspartame have been funded or influenced by corporations, so review studies such as the 2007 one are invalid to begin with.13

Aspartame is the most controversial and potentially most dangerous sweetener of all the nonnutritive sweeteners.

The FDA does recognize that people sensitive to phenylalanine may be intolerant of aspartame (aspartame breaks down in the body into aspartic acid and phenylalanine). A 2008 study also illustrated the dangers of aspartame to the brain 14 The most recent research I could find on aspartame dates to 2014 call for an “urgent review” of existing carcinogenic studies. Aspartame is the most controversial and potentially most dangerous sweetener of all the nonnutritive sweeteners. 15

Saccharin

Saccharin is the oldest of the nonnutritive sweeteners and is considered one of the most studied. Today, it is considered safe for human consumption, but has waned in popularity in recent years due to its bitter aftertaste. The best known brand of commercial saccharin is Sweet ‘n Low. Saccharin was the subject of considerable controversy in the 1970s. Studies showed that it was responsible for causing cancer in rats. There were many powerful companies interested in weighing in on the debate. The key players were producers of saccharin and the sugar lobby, as well as the producer of aspartame, then the biggest competitor to saccharin in the nonnutritive sweetener space.

Several studies of saccharin in rats associated saccharin consumption with the development of bladder cancer. 16, 17, 18, However, later studies showed that rats digest saccharin in a way not relevant to humans and the FDA subsequently removed warning labels that saccharin may be a carcinogen.19 By the early 2000s, the consensus of the food science community was that although saccharin does indeed cause bladder in rats, it does no harm in humans.20

Sucralose

Several health experts claim that isolated patients have had allergic reactions to Splenda, but the only two references I found to reactions were two papers from 2006 that identified two single instances of sucralose being linked to migraines.21 The widely-propagated notion that Splenda was approved by the FDA as safe without proper testing also seems ill-founded, as multiple sources claim the FDA reviewed over 100 studies before giving sucralose approval.22, 23, 24 One recent review called sucralose “one of the most researched and reviewed food additives today.”25

A recent study that received attention in health- and natural-food circles found that sucralose negatively altered the gut flora of rats26, but a later expert review of that study concluded that it was not “scientifically valid.”27 Concerns had also been raised the rat study was funded in part by the Sugar Association.28 Although the matter seemed to remain of some debate, I have been unable to find any follow-on research from the original researchers and more recent research on Splenda in the human gut has found no significant negative effects.

Acesulfame Potassium and Neotame

Both Acesulfame Potassium and Neotame are more likely to be found in your diet coke than on store shelves. For that reason, it appears that they have less often been the subject of scientific investigation. Acesulfame potassium was approved in the 1980s as a food additive, but it was less-often used due to a bitter aftertaste. In recent years, it’s come back into favor because it can be mixed with other sweeteners to produce a desirable taste. I couldn’t find comprehensive review articles about Acesulfame potassium, though several sources have called for more thorough carcinogenic testing.29

Neotame is in a similar boat with acesulfame: neotame is a modified version of aspartame. Like the other nonnutritives covered here, there are plenty of sources that claim neotame is safe and has been well-tested, but I am reluctant to recommend it without seeing more debate and research on the sweetener. Neotame is still not popular both for retail sales and in the industry due to its poor aftertaste.

Stevia

When I started researching this article, I genuinely thought that I would be giving the crown to stevia. In recent years, stevia, or more precisely the concentrated extract of the Stevia rebaudiana plant has become the darling of natural-food enthusiasts looking for a safe, healthy alternative to sugar.

Here are the arguments in favor of stevia:

  • Stevia is extracted from a plant. All the other nonnutritive sweeteners are synthesized in a lab.
  • Many cultures have used stevia as a natural sweetener. Studies dating back to the 1970s have shown that stevia is safe for human consumption.
  • In Japan, over 40,000 clinical trials have been conducted on stevia, the vast majority of which demonstrate that stevia is safe for consumption.
  • In fact, it’s not just safe, stevia has been suggested as a treatment for diabetes, a way to lower blood pressure, and for its antioxidant properties.30

So if all this is true, why don’t I think stevia should be crowned the best nonnutritive sweetener?

Look closely at the labels of any major stevia product on the market today. You’ll notice the ingredients will list something like “Reb A (Stevia extract)” and in many cases, erythritol. Reb A is short for Rebaudioside A, a processed extract of the stevia plant considered its most sweet constituent with the least bitter aftertaste. Comparing Rebaudioside A to stevia extract would be like comparing processed fructose to natural honey. Honey has been shown to have many beneficial effects on human health, but those benefits depend heavily on the sourcing and processing of the honey. I’m not trying to say that Rebaudioside A is as bad for you as processed fructose would be, but saying that a product containing Rebaudioside A has the same health benefits as stevia extract proof would be flat wrong.

As for erythritol? I’ve already written about erythritol’s use as a sweetener, above. It’s a solid alternative to sugar and the addition of Reb A probably makes it a little sweeter without adding any negative side effects. But I don’t think the erythritol and Reb A combination edges out sucralose’s advantages.

saying that a product containing Rebaudioside A has the same health benefits as stevia extract proof would be flat wrong.

As for Stevia, the extract? I have a few bottles of stevia in my pantry and I do use them from time to time, usually to add sweetness to a product I’ve already sweetened with something else. The few extracts I’ve tried have all had a noticeable bitter aftertaste in any quantity.

More importantly, stevia extract is not technically approved by the FDA as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). And there’s a good reason for that. It’s perfectly acceptable to market stevia extract as a supplement, but it’d be very difficult to get a plant extract approved as a general-purpose sweetener. All the trace amounts of compounds that might have health benefits could also potentially cause harm if manufacturers don’t understand and control them properly.

Consider this line from a review of Stevia’s use and health effects: according to Japanese researchers, “a sign of an excellent Stevia product is one that is free of this liquorice essence and still not bitter.”31 A quote like that raises the question: what exactly constitutes a “high-quality” stevia extract?  Might some extracts be a true miracle sweetener while others have toxic effects?

I simply don’t think we have enough research and public awareness of how stevia extracts sold in the United States are extracted and processed to make a firm recommendation either way.

Even if they are safe, nonnutritive sweeteners may not be healthier than sugar

I’ve focused on safety, but assuming whatever nonnutritive sweetener is safe, is it still better for you than sugar?

Here are the basic arguments against the overconsumption of sugar:

  1. Sugar has a considerable amount of calories with no significant nutritional (micronutrient/vitamin) content.
  2. Sugar is digested quickly, which means it places a glycemic load on our bodies, which can lead to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, which is in turn linked to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
  3. Since it’s sweet, we tend to eat too much sugar, and that can cause us to overeat other foods, ultimately leading to weight gain.

By definition, nonnutritive sweeteners have negligible calories, so studies have focused on (1) whether nonnutritive sweeteners elicit an insulin response similar to sugar and (2) whether replacing sugar with nonnutritive sweeteners results in long-term weight loss.

The results, unfortunately, have not been promising.

Long-term epidemiologic reviews of existing populations have found that the consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners (specifically in the form of diet sodas) actually increases weight gain32, 33 and increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.34, 35

While these studies have been quick to point out that they merely establish association and can’t comment on causation without further research, the results are nonetheless disappointing for people who might be considering switching from sugar-sweetened beverages to diet sodas as a means of improving health.

But, in the short term, studies show a contradictory result.

Study after study shows that, compared to sucrose, nonnutritive sweeteners have less effect on glucose levels, insulin response, and other hormones related to insulin resistance.36

Some human studies have shown that replacing low-nutritional-value sweetened beverages with artificially-sweetened beverages can support weight control37, 38,but the American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association together concluded as of 2012 that there hadn’t been enough trials conducted to make a conclusive recommendation one way or another.39

Now, I could go through each of the nonnutritive sweeteners I’ve written about and try to piece together each compound’s specific metabolic impact and long-term effects, but much of the evidence in this field of research looks more at questions of how we perceive food and the other foods we choose to eat when we drink sweetened beverages. The specific chemical behavior of particular sweeteners may not be the most important factor here.

So, should I be using a sugar substitute?

Yeah, I think so.

Here’s why: I have a big bag of Splenda sitting in my pantry right now (as well as a whole lot of other sweeteners—had to be thorough in my testing) and I plan to keep it there. But using splenda is not my strategy for preventing diabetes and managing my weight. To do that, I limit my overall intake of simple carbohydrates, eat vegetables with high nutritional value, and exercise, among other things.

I keep sucralose around because sometimes I like to make lemonade in the summer and it tastes pretty good with a spoonful of splenda in it. I don’t like the way I personally feel after drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, so if I am craving a sweetened beverage, I’ll pick a small dose of splenda over an equivalent amount of sugar.

If you can completely avoid sweetened foods and beverages, then by all means skip buying any sweetener, be it caloric or nonnutritive. But if you’re looking for a well-priced, easy-to-use option, for now, sucralose looks like your best bet, just don’t rely on a sugar substitute as your best means of staying healthy.

Have you ever tried a sugar substitute? Tell me about it in the comments!

Liked this article? Make sure to check out my piece on “natural” sugar alternatives.

Notes:

  1. Noda K, Nakayama K, Oku T (1994). Serum glucose and insulin levels and erythritol balance after oral administration of erythritol in healthy subjects.European journal of clinical nutrition 48(4), 286-292
  2. Bornet, F. R. J, et al. (1996). Gastrointestinal response and plasma and urine determinations in human subjects given erythritol Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 24(2), 296-302.
  3. Arrigoni, E, Fbrouns, F, Amado, R (2005). Human gut microbiota does not ferment erythritol British Journal of Nutrition 94(5), 643-646
  4. Tetzloff W, et al. (1996). Tolerance to subchronic, high-dose ingestion of erythritol in human volunteers Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 24(2), 286-295
  5. Tetzloff W, et al. (1996). Tolerance to subchronic, high-dose ingestion of erythritol in human volunteers Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 24(2), 286-295
  6. Oku, Tsuneyuki, Mitsuko Okazaki (1996). Laxative threshold of sugar alcohol erythritol in human subjects Nutrition Research 16(4), 577-589
  7. Lina, B. A. R, et al. (1996). Chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity study of erythritol in rats Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 24(2), 264-279
  8. Munro, I. C, et al. (1998). Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data Food and Chemical Toxicology 36(12), 1139-1174
  9. Hino, Haruko, et al. (2000). A case of allergic urticaria caused by erythritol The Journal of dermatology 27(3), 163-165
  10. Shirao, Kenichiro, et al. (2013). Bitter Sweet”: A Child Case of Erythritol-Induced Anaphylaxis Allergology international: official journal of the Japanese Society of Allergology 62(2), 269-271
  11. Abou-Donia, M. B., et al. (2008). Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 71(21), 1415-1429
  12. Magnuson, B. A, et al. (2007). Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies CRC Critical Reviews in Toxicology 37(8), 629-727
  13. Mercola.com (2010). Aspartame’s Dangers, Side Effects and FDA Approval Explained Mercola.com.
  14. Humphries, P, E. Pretorius, H. Naude (2008). Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain European journal of clinical nutrition 62(4), 451-462
  15. Soffritti, Morando, et al. (2014). The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re‐evaluation American journal of industrial medicine.
  16. Munro, I. C, et al. (1975). A carcinogenicity study of commercial saccharin in the rat Toxicology and applied pharmacology 32(3), 513-526
  17. Price, J. M, et al. (1970). Bladder tumors in rats fed cyclohexylamine or high doses of a mixture of cyclamate and saccharin Science 167(3921), 1131-1132
  18. Cohen, Samuel M, et al. (1979). Promoting effect of saccharin and DL-tryptophan in urinary bladder carcinogenesis Cancer research 39(4), 1207-1217
  19. Integrated Laboratory Systems (1999). NTP Report on Carcinogens Background Document for Saccharin.
  20. Singh, Zorawar (2013). Toxicological Aspects of Saccharin Food Biology 2(1), pg 4.
  21. Patel, Rajendrakumar M, Rakesh Sarma, Edwin Grimsley (2006). Popular sweetner sucralose as a migraine trigger Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 46(8), 1303-1304.
  22. Rodero, A. B.; Rodero, L. S.; Azoubel, R. (2009). “Toxicity of sucralose in humans: a review. Int J Morph. 21(1), 239-244.
  23. Grotz, V. Lee, Ian C. Munro (2009). An overview of the safety of sucralose Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology 55(1), 1-5.
  24.  Grice HC; Goldsmith LA (2000). “Sucralose–an overview of the toxicity data”. Food Chem Toxicol 38 (Suppl 2): S1–6.
  25. Shankar, Padmini, Suman Ahuja, Krishnan Sriram (2013). Non-nutritive sweeteners: Review and update Nutrition 29(11), 1293-1299.
  26. Abou-Donia, M. B., et al. (2008). Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 71(21), 1415-1429.
  27. Brusick, David, et al. (2009). Expert panel report on a study of Splenda in male rats Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 55(1), 6.
  28. Daniells, S. (2008). Splenda study: Industry and acadmemia respond FoodNavigator.com.
  29. Karstadt, Myra (2010). Inadequate toxicity tests of food additive acesulfame International journal of occupational and environmental health 16(1), 89-96.
  30. All these conclusions are drawn from the excellent review paper Goyal, S. K, R. K. Goyal (2010). Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review. It cites dozens of other references, some of which I couldn’t find in databases I have access to, so I’ve just cited the review here.
  31. Goyal, S. K, R. K. Goyal (2010). Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review.
  32. Fowler, Sharon P, et al. (2008). Fueling the Obesity Epidemic? Artificially Sweetened Beverage Use and Long‐term Weight Gain Obesity 16(8), 1894-1900.
  33. Stellman, Steven D, Lawrence Garfinkel (1986). Artificial sweetener use and one-year weight change among women Preventive medicine 15(2), 195-202.
  34. Nettleton, Jennifer A, et al. (2009). Diet soda intake and risk of incident metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Diabetes 32(4), 688-694.
  35. Fagherazzi, Guy, et al. (2013). Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale–European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort The American journal of clinical nutrition 97(3), 517-523.
  36. As summarized in Shankar, Padmini, Suman Ahuja, Krishnan Sriram (2013). Non-nutritive sweeteners: Review and update Nutrition 29(11), 1293-1299.
  37. de Ruyter, Janne C., et al. (2012). A trial of sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverages and body weight in children New England Journal of Medicine 367(15), 1397-1406.
  38. Sørensen, Lone B., et al. (2014). Sucrose compared with artificial sweeteners: a clinical intervention study of effects on energy intake, appetite, and energy expenditure after 10 wk of supplementation in overweight subjects The American journal of clinical nutrition.
  39. Gardner, C, et al. (2012). Nonnutritive Sweeteners: Current Use and Health Perspectives Diabetes Care 35(8), 1798-1808.

Where can young fit guys buy clothes that fit?

hulk

 

Tell me if this has ever happened to you.

You’re at a name-brand department store and you find the exact dress shirt looking for. I mean, it’s the right color, the right pattern (striped, not too thick, casual, but would work with a suit too), and your exact size – 15.5 neck, 34 sleeves.

Score!

Then, you take the shirt home, open up the bag, and suddenly realize you didn’t buy a dress shirt, you bought some sort of striped parachute with sleeves. I mean, the shirt looks normal enough at the collar, but it balloons down to epic proportions.

Since when was it ok for retailers to assume that a dude with a 15.5 inch neck is going to have a 50-inch waist?

I’ve tried all kinds of tricks and hacks (like sewing my own shirts or wearing military-issue shirtholders—they’re really uncomfortable) to get a good fit, but nothing fits quite right and I’m not sure I want to shell out for a personal tailor.

So, guys, tell me what your experience has been. Do you have a big chest and skinny waist? How about a powerlifter’s thighs underneath a respectable six-pack? Have you found some great places to shop or have you thrown in the towel and resigned yourself to wearing Eminem sweats for the rest of your life?

And are there any stores out there selling solid clothes for young guys at a decent price?

Erectile Dysfunction (and Function!) in Young Men

shoes

Too busy to read the whole article? [1600 words, a 7-minute read] Here are the key takeaways:

  • Young men think of erectile dysfunction (ED) as an old man’s problem, but the problem is increasing in the young population.
  • Erectile dysfunction, particularly in young men, isn’t just about sex. It’s more likely an indicator of more serious health problems.
  • Worst thing you can do to “fix” your erectile dysfunction: pop pills without a prescription.
  • Best things you can do to fix erectile dysfunction: (1) Start with lifestyle changes (2) Have the guts to talk to your doctor

ED is increasingly becoming a young man’s problem

If my spam folder is any indication, there is an international epidemic of erectile dysfunction the likes of which the world has never seen before.

Not quite, but there is some cause for concern. We’ve known for some time now that long-term ED affects 5% of men at age 40. That figure goes to 15 to 25% of men by age 65.But, what about young men? Young men are suffering from ED at rates higher than previously considered normal. A recent study observed that 1 in 4 patients newly-diagnosed with ED was a young man and almost half of these young men suffered from severe* erectile dysfunction.2

*Severe ED: A patient is incapable of getting and maintaining  an erection to have satisfying sexual intercourse. The less severe cases can still occasionally get it up.

How do I know if I have ED or if it’s just a temporary issue?

I’m sure you’re aware that the main symptom of erectile dysfunction is the inability to achieve and maintain an erection for satisfying sexual intercourse.

There are three main reasons why you might develop ED: (1) physical problems, (2) psychological problems, and (3) problems caused by medication.3

Your doctor should advise you if any medication you’re taking could cause erection issues. So if it’s not medication, then your symptoms are either physical or psychological. Here’s a quick test: if you can get an erection when masturbating or still wake up at full salute, then your troubles are probably psychological.* Temporary contributors to erectile dysfunction include fatigue, stress, and relationship issues, among other causes.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on physical causes of ED, since these may be indicative of more serious and permanent issues.

*The underlying problem may then be stress-related or caused by an over-indulgence with alcohol. Chronic alcoholism can negatively affect hormone metabolism or trigger the onset of a mental condition. One’s mental status can affect erectile function; e.g. anxiety, repeated life stressors (work, relationships), depression or psychosis. That’s as much as we’ll get into that here; leave us a comment a if you’d like to know more about psychological causes of ED.

Why penis health is a good indicator of overall health

There are three main health conditions* that, when affected, can lead to erectile dysfunction: (1) hormonal, (2) vasculogenic, and (3) anatomical.

Simply put, poor penis function can be an indicator of all kinds of other health problems.

Hormone disorders such as hypogandism can cause the body to produce incredibly low levels of testosterone, which in turn could decrease erectile function. But it’s not just sufferers of bona-fide disorders who should be worried about testosterone. There’s a strange endemic in modern society: the testosterone levels in young men are decreasing.4

Testosterone governs your interest in sex, the number of times you’ll want to have sex and the frequency of getting an erection. Suffice it to say, testosterone is a pretty big deal. And testosterone isn’t just about feeling more like a man or growing giant biceps. Testosterone affects a wide range of bodily functions from muscle growth to cardiovascular function.

Vasculogenic problems affect blood flow to the penis. The human penis is populated with a collection of arteries, all of which (except for 1) branch throughout the length of the penis.3 Under normal conditions when it’s time to perform, a man’s brain alerts the nerves in the penis, the arteries dilate (expand), more blood is supplied to the erectile tissue, and the penis becomes engorged with blood.

Think of the ability to get an erection as synonymous with proper blood flow throughout the body. Erection difficulties may therefore be indicators for larger issues with blood flow in general. A fully functional heart and a fully functional penis are a package deal (no pun intended).

Since cardiovascular disease can cause erectile dysfunction, think of ED as a warning sign for possible heart attack—not to be taken lightly.

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is caused by the blockage of the arteries that transport oxygen-rich blood to the heart. A build-up of plaque narrows the passage of the arteries leading to heart problems ranging from chest pain to a full-blown heart attack. CAD is the foremost cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Since cardiovascular disease can cause erectile dysfunction, think of ED as a warning sign for possible heart attack—not to be taken lightly.5,6,7,8

Anatomical disorders of the penis can lead to ED. For example, pudendal nerve entrapment is characterized by reduced or complete loss of penile sensation and experiencing pain when sitting.3 This nerve can be blocked or damaged due to accidents or excessive riding on hard and narrow bicycle seats.

*Neurogenic conditions can also affect penis function. These include spinal cord injuries, stroke, and other ailments affecting brain function. The brain sends signals to the penis when it’s time to perform; if those messages can’t get to the penis, it stays flaccid even if everything else is working. You’ll probably know if you have one of these conditions due to other, more serious symptoms, which is why we’re leaving it out of our discussion of ED.

Erectile function: How to prevent ED and improve penis function

Lets assume you’ve ruled out neurogenic and anatomical disorders as causes for ED. That leaves testosterone levels and vasculogenic (cardiovascular) health.

As it turns out, you can boost testosterone levels while also improving cardiovascular health with the exact same lifestyle changes. The basic prescription? Exercise (with weights!) and watch what you eat. Don’t pop pills.

Don’t fall for the “erectile enhancement” ads. The drug companies would love for us all to believe that our greatest fears and challenges can be solved with a single pill. The truth, however, is that any medication designed to treat ED will have consequences throughout the body, for all the reasons we discussed above. That’s why many men with pre-existing conditions can’t take oral medication. These conditions include heart problems, recent history of stroke, eye problems and kidney disease. On top of that, some medications to treat other conditions interfere with the actions of ED meds.9 Basically, what we’re saying is: consult a doctor before trying any sort of medication or supplement for ED.

Exercise with weights. The exact explanations for why exercise does so much good throughout the body is still a little foggy, but specific research has proven that men who are physically active overall have better erectile function.10 Here’s one particular study of interest: obese men with ED were put on a calorie-restricted diet for two years and were advised to be more physically active. Not only did these men lose quite a lot of weight but the severity of their ED was also decreased.11

Another study showed that exercise alone can help preserve erectile function even if you don’t adhere to a healthy diet.12 The only caveat: if you do eat junk food, you need a higher level of physical activity to maintain erectile function and cardioprotection. Why do we specifically think weight training helps? Because weight lifting can significantly increase testosterone levels while improving cardiovascular health.13

Watch what you eat. As you can probably imagine, obesity has been associated with all sorts of negative effects in the body. Rather than generalizing about obesity, let’s look at specific factors that contribute to ED. People who eat a Western Diet generally consume an excess amount of refined carbohydrates (sugars) and a harmful mix of fats. Chronic high levels of blood glucose (too much sugar in the blood) causes the blood to get thick, which means it becomes much harder for the heart to circulate blood to the extremities. As you might imagine, poor circulation to the penis can mean chronic ED.

There are two main arguments for which fats are worst in the Western Diet. Some research has shown that excess consumption of saturated fats are linked to high cholesterol and high blood pressure, two factors that then lead to heart disease. Others argue that the ratio between Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids is more important. Continued, excessive omega-6 PUFA intake has been linked to the development of breast and prostate cancer, inflammation and arthritis.14

Penis, penis penis. Please don’t be afraid to talk about your PENIS.

Listen, guys: if there’s anything you should take from this article it’s that you need to watch out for erectile dysfunction and address it with your doctor if you think it’s an issue.

A line from above bears repeating: proper penis function and proper heart function are a package deal. More than likely, your prescription will simply be some intervals and weights. But, you’ll also be making sure your penis problems aren’t hiding more serious health issues.

Your next action: ask about your erectile health

  • If you’ve been having long-term trouble with erectile function, schedule a visit to a doctor immediately and make sure to get a full physical. ED in young men could be an indicator of more serious cardiovascular or hormonal problems
  • If you’re happy with your ability to get and maintain an erection, still consider a weight-training exercise regimen and watching what you eat to prevent the onset of ED as you get older.

Alright gents, let’s keep it clean in the comments, but I encourage you to talk as much as you want (for once) about your penises.

References

  1. Erectile Dysfunction Basics, WebMD
  2. Capogrosso, P et al. One Patient Out of Four with Newly Diagnosed Erectile Dysfunction Is a Young Man—Worrisome Picture from the Everyday Clinical Practice. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10: 1833–1841, 2013.
  3. Erectile Dysfunction, Mayo Clinic [last accessed: 23-09-13]
  4. Travison, T.G. et alThe Relative Contributions of Aging, Health, and Lifestyle Factors to Serum Testosterone Decline in Men. JCEM 92:1, 2007.
  5. BMJ-British Medical Journal (2008, October 22). Erectile Dysfunction Gives Early Warning Of A Heart Attack, Warns ExpertScienceDaily.
  6. What is Coronary Artery Disease?, NIH/NHLBI [last accessed: 23-09-13]
  7. Mayo Clinic (2009, February 8). Younger Men With Erectile Dysfunction At Double Risk Of Heart Disease. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 29, 2013.
  8. Vlachopoulos, CV et al. Prediction of cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality with erectile dysfunction: a systemic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes 6: 99-109, 2013.
  9. Erectile dysfunction: Viagra and other oral medications. Mayo Clinic.
  10. Joyner, MJ and Green, DJ. Exercise protects the cardiovascular system: effects beyond traditional risk factors. J Physiol 587: 5551-5558, 2009.
  11. Esposito, K et al. Effect of lifestyle changes on erectile dysfunction in obese men. JAMA 291: 2978-2984, 2004.
  12. Hsiao, W et al. Exercise is associated with better erectile function in men under 40 as evaluated by the international index of erectile function. J Sex Med 9: 524-530, 2012.
  13. Fry, A.C. and Lohnes, C.A. Acute testosterone and cortisol responses to high power resistance exercise. Human Physiology, 36:4  pp 457-461, 2010
  14. Omega-6 Fatty Acids. University of Maryland Medical Center [last accessed: 23-09-13]

More reading

  1. Banks, E. et al. Erectile Dysfunction Severity as a Risk Marker for Cardiovascular Disease Hospitalisation and All-Cause Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study. PLOS medicine, 2013.
  2. La Favor, JD et al. Exercise prevents Western-diet associated erectile dysfunction and coronary artery endothelial dysfunction: response to acute apocynin and sepiapterin treatment. American Journal of Physiological Regul Integr Comp Physiol, 2013.
  3. La Favor, JD et al. Erectile dysfunction precedes coronary artery endothelial dysfunction in rats fed a high-fat, high-sucrose, Western pattern diet. J Sex Med 10: 694-703, 2013.

Millennials: What Does it Mean to Find “Meaningful Work”?

meaning

Too busy to read the whole article? [1500 words, a 6-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Many millennials struggle with the balance between finding meaningful work, being happy, and protecting financial security.
  • Smiley Poswolsky struggled with a nontraditional career path and wrote The Quarter-Life Breakthrough to help others like him. He also happens to be one of my personal mentors and friends.
  • Check out a free excerpt from the book here.
  • To win a free copy of the book (5 available), leave a comment by Tuesday, April 15. For a second entry, shoot me an email too.

Time to pull back the curtain a bit.

The reason I first created this website was because something in my work life didn’t feel quite right. At the ripe old age of 26, I wasn’t feeling as fulfilled at work as I once had and knew it was time for something new.

Whenever I told my friends and family about my plans (quit my job and start a publishing company for young people) they invariably thought I was nuts. I wondered: am I the only one who feels this way?

Then, I discovered StartingBloc, an incredible 5-day business seminar/meditation retreat/all-night rager that introduced me to over 100 young people (and some not-so-young people) desperate to make a change in their lives and find meaningful work.

During StartingBloc, I met Smiley Poswolsky. Smiley has found himself working everywhere from a film festival in Buenos Aires to the headquarters of the Peace Corps in Washington, DC. Yet, throughout a varied and often rewarding career, he kept finding himself struggling to find a balance between purpose, happiness, and financial security.

he kept finding himself struggling to find a balance between purpose, happiness, and financial security.

And Smiley’s not alone. American millennials increasingly find themselves defined not by their jobs, but by their personal narratives.

The difference is, Smiley’s actually doing something about the problem. In his new book, The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, Smiley profiles changemakers who have found meaning in their lives and provides effective exercises and step-by-step to-do lists for young people looking to do the same.

In my opinion, the list of helpful books, internships, grants, and supportive communities alone is worth the price of the book.

Now, without further ado, a short excerpt from The Quarterlife Breakthrough that illustrates two actionable ideas that can help you get a job that means something.

Enter Smiley

(Excerpted from The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, page 105)

Try on jobs to see if they fit

Finding meaningful work is all about experimentation, and being open to new opportunities. Remember Kristen, who left her sales job at Google and by pursuing her esthetics certificate, found that she has a gift for doing make-up and making others feel comfortable in their own skin? Or Zack, who taught himself how to code, got a full-time job at a tech start-up and is now developing his second app? Both Kristen and Zack were okay with being beginners. They admitted what they didn’t know and experimented with a new opportunity to see if it was the right fit.

The job search process is time-consuming, and the last thing you want to do is start a new job and realize a month later that it’s not at all what you thought it would be. A great tactic when you’re considering a career transition is to try on a job in person to see if it fits before you even apply.

When I was considering other opportunities for after the Peace Corps, one thing I considered was teaching. I researched teaching credential programs, master’s programs in education, Teach for America, and New York City Teaching Fellows. I spent countless hours preparing for my Teaching Fellows interview, reading books, and watching documentaries about education. I talked to my teacher-friend Gayle about my job search, and she said, “Smiley, you should just come visit my class next week.”

When I visited Gayle’s class, not only did I realize what an amazing teacher she was, but I also realized that teaching (at least in an elementary school classroom) was not for me. I found the smell of the building nauseating and twenty-five kids running around like maniacs made me freak out. By 2:15pm, I was exhausted. I kept looking at the clock to see when class was over, and I realized I had no interest in classroom management, which is a huge element of good teaching. I still care deeply about education. But spending one day in a 4th grade classroom made me realize that being an elementary school teacher is not for me, at least not right now.

Reach out to people that work in environments you’re interested in working in. Ask if you can shadow them for the day, or even a morning. Can you picture yourself in their job? Why? Why not? If you’re interested in two or more opportunities, test both. If you can’t shadow someone, consider interviewing her about the work she does, her environment, and what her day-to-day is like to get a sense of the job.

Seek short-term entry-level experiences

Six months after graduating from college, when I moved to New York City to do freelance work in the film industry, I took any job on a film set I could get. For a few months I worked as a production assistant (or PA, as they’re commonly referred to) on several different films. For one gig, my job was to sit on the back of the grip and electric truck, and make sure no one that wasn’t part of the crew took anything (like lights or cables) from the truck.

For twelve hours a day, six days straight, in 20 degree weather, I sat on the back of a truck near Bryant Park and froze my ass off for $100 a day. Since the truck was a few blocks away from set, I didn’t learn anything about film production. I barely interacted with anyone, except for a few grips who chain-smoked all day and a few tourists who wandered by, asking if anyone famous was in the movie.

On my next gig, I worked for $50 a day as a PA on a small independent film, but told the line producer I didn’t want to watch a truck, I wanted to be on-set. Because the film was a low-budget project, they were highly understaffed, and I ended becoming the assistant location manager, helping the location manager and the line producer scout new locations and manage on-set logistics for the film. I saw first-hand how involved making a movie really is.

While I got paid half as much, the experience of being an apprentice on-set taught me infinitely more than making $100 a day guarding a truck. Two months later, my location manager brought me onto another gig as her assistant location manger and paid me $200 a day. After that, I worked for nearly two years doing freelance location work. I learned so much that after two years of freelancing, I produced a short film about a day in the life of two Iraq War veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Taking the skills I learned on various film sets, I managed a cast and crew of over 40 people, something I never would have been able to do had I not turned the  experience of getting frostbite on my toes into an opportunity for an apprenticeship.

If you’re new to a field, look for short-term, entry level experiences in the form of internships, apprenticeships, consulting opportunities, or freelance gigs that offer on-the-ground learning and mentorship from people with expertise. While these experiences may pay less, they can often be much more valuable than entry-level jobs where you do something you already know how to do (like watch a truck, answer a phone, or schedule meetings). The best thing about short-term experiences is that if they aren’t the right fit, you can easily move on to something else.

Often the best entry-level experiences are not advertised on websites or job boards. You may have to create one for yourself, like Zack did when he convinced the Vice President of TaskRabbit to give him an internship, or when I told my line producer I wanted to work on-set.

If you’re having trouble coming up with an idea for an apprenticeship, check out the Leap Year Project, created by Victor Saad. Interested in going to business school but worried about the cost, Victor created a self-directed, multicity master’s degree in design, business development, and social innovation. He developed 12 different experiences in 12 months for himself, apprenticing with places like a leading architecture firm in Seattle, an art and apparel community in Chicago, and a digital agency in San Diego.

Inspired by his leap year, he decided to create an actual school for others to learn by doing, called Experience Institute. Victor’s story teaches us that it’s possible to create any kind of short term apprenticeship that makes sense for you.

Your next action: join the Quarter-Life Breakthrough Community

  • Liked what you read? Simply leave a comment below about what “meaningful work” means to you for a chance to win Smiley’s new book (5 free physical copies available). For a second entry into the random drawing, shoot me an email about life, work, or just to say hi. I’ll announce the winners on our email list next week. Deadline to enter is Tuesday, April 15th.
  • Smiley would love to hear from you about your own stories or questions—to get in touch, simply email him.
  • Don’t forget to buy the book. Even if you win a free copy, I bet you can think of at least one friend who could benefit from their own copy, no?

The Best Free Resources for Yoga

I’m Kaitlyn, a writer, editor, traveller, and serial exercise dabbler. Over the past three months, I’ve gone from complete yoga novice to nurturing a daily practice. In this seven-part series, I review the best resources, tips, apps, and gear to help even the most stressed-out and stiff-backed desk workers start a healthy, holistic, and life-changing yoga practice.

Here’s what I’ve written about so far:

Today, I’ll share the resources I found as I started my first foray into yoga. Some were more helpful than others, but all of them were free.

Too busy to read the whole article? [2300 words, an 11-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • There is so much free yoga online.
  • DoYouYoga offers a great 30-day intro to yoga, but I found that the flows were too short for me to get the benefits of meditation.
  • Do Yoga with Me was my favorite resource. It offers a wide range of video lengths and styles and a beginner’s plan.
  • Yoga Journal has shorter videos, but 360 degree video explorations of different poses are incredibly useful.
  • There’s always YouTube, but searching “Beginner’s Yoga” gets overwhelming. I recommend a few videos and share my search technique.
  • If you like to do your research before jumping into things, look up Sun Salutations12 and Vinyasa (breath control). I found these concepts extremely helpful as I sustained my practice.

After two weeks using the 30-Day Yoga Challenge to create my habit, I started checking out other free online yoga. The biggest problem I had with the 30-Day Yoga Challenge was the fact that the short routines didn’t give me enough time to meditate and reflect. I also wanted to build my understanding of yoga, my confidence to keep going, and my physical ability to do the poses.

So I was looking for:

  1. Videos about an hour long. Since many studio classes are about an hour long, this seemed like a good place to start.
  2. Good routines for relaxation.
  3. Good routines for an athletic challenge.
  4. A breakdown of basics to improve my foundation.

I checked out a handful of resources recommended to me by friends who had experience with learning or teaching yoga. These were my favorite resources.

YouTube

Let’s start with the most obvious place to find free yoga videos. YouTube is where I started and it’s how I found DoYouYoga’s 30-day yoga challenge that I tried for, well, about 15 days.

But search YouTube for beginner’s yoga and you’ll find 370,000 results. It’s boggling.

I did find a few good beginner videos:

With that being said, I wouldn’t recommend randomly searching YouTube as a beginner. Instead, try one of the other beginner’s program I write about below, then come back to YouTube when you know what you want.

Example good yoga videos on YouTube:

That’s just a tiny sampling of the videos out there. Obviously, some are better than others—choosing the right video is a combination of being familiar with a particular instructor and knowing the exact type of flow you want.

DoYogaWithMe

I spent about a week with the videos from DoYogawithMe. The site displays each video’s length, average rating, and a few lines of summary before you click through, so it’s easy to quickly find what you want. Reviews from other beginners are under each video, which is helpful with videos like Beginner Basics in Flow which some viewers found very challenging. They also offer donation-based curated routines.

  • Burnout to Bliss is a nicely paced, hour long beginner’s routine. Great transition from the 30 Day Yoga challenge.
  • Seated Whole Body Hatha Yoga Flow is a series of gentle stretches that can become quite powerful and leave long-lasting warmth and looseness in your body. The instructor here goes really deep—you probably won’t be able to, so don’t feel pressure.

Yoga Journal

I spent the next week with Yoga Journal’s video resources. These were harder to choose from, since you have to click through to see video length and there are no reviews. Their routines are generally more technical, more likely to use Sanskrit terms, and more athletically challenging than those on DoYogaWithMe. Plus, most of Yoga Journal’s routines were shorter than an hour, which is less time than I needed to get into a meditative, head-clearing state.

With that being said, I did find a few of their videos useful:

  • The Morning and Evening sequences are short, gentle, and meant to be done twice a day (one in the morning and one in the evening—duh?).
  • Strengthen your Core was the opposite: this athletic, dynamic routine with some arm balance will tire you out. I think it’s best suited for someone who is already in good shape but is looking to try some yoga. For this flow you really need two blocks to put your hands on so you can jump your body through your arms. Blocks can stabilize you in poses where one hand is on the ground, or improve your alignment. Until I got a great set of heavy cork blocks (more about that in a future article), I used a big, heavy book instead.

While it was tough to find the routine I wanted on Yoga Journal, I came back to the site for their invaluable 360-degree video explanations of different poses. I returned to these over and over while learning the basics of a Sun Salutation, the basis for many modern yoga routines.

Learning basic postures (asanas) will quickly make you more comfortable. You’ll pick them up as you go, but if you prefer to study ahead of time, you can use Yoga Journal to learn these poses:

  • Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Lunge
  • Plank Pose
  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Other sites I looked at

Some yoga teachers host videos on their websites, such as Yoga with Adriene. If you find a teacher you like on another a video site, try Googling their name and seeing if they have a personal site with free videos.

My Free Yoga and Free Yoga Videos both host hundreds of free videos. But they weren’t as easy to navigate as DoYogaWithMe and their videos didn’t feel as curated. These sites have more videos because users can upload their own, of varying quality. I liked sites with more oversight, even if it meant fewer videos to choose from.

Some other websites offer free yoga classes, but these are part of a free trial or restricted to a small portion of all their videos. I’ll talk more about the limited free trials for paid sites in a later article (link will be updated here when it’s posted).

The Limits of Free: Injury and Asking for Help

While doing all of this yoga, my body felt great—until it didn’t. One major downside to practicing from videos vs. learning from a teacher is that it’s easier for a beginner to injure themselves. I was really into my new practice, but I pushed it too hard and had to learn to practice more safely.

I’m naturally flexible, so I tend to like stretchy routines. I realized, though, that I had hurt myself because I was doing too much stretching and not enough strengthening.

I started feeling weird popping noises around my left knee and aching at the base of my neck. With any new exercise, it’s normal to feel some new aches and pains while your muscles adjust.3 When you release tight muscles as you start doing yoga, it impacts your overall posture and muscles in unexpected places across your body, which might make you sore. Since I’m a desk worker, I wasn’t surprised that waking up neglected neck muscles was uncomfortable—they always get sore when I exercise my upper body, and the sensation was familiar.

But, according to instructor Laurence Gilliot,4 any sharp pain means you should slow down and come out of the pose that caused the pain.

My knee stayed sore when I was resting, with sharp pains around my kneecap and the back of the joint. When I couldn’t sleep one night because my knee hurt, I knew something was really wrong. I worried I was feeling a symptom of misalignment—when doing a pose incorrectly and repeatedly harms your body.

Then I asked Laurence about what I was feeling and went to a couple of beginner’s classes. We’ll talk more about classroom lessons next time, but I found that in-person classes were the quickest way to check my alignment and make sure I practiced correctly from the beginning.5

In class, teachers are there to help you. If you are experiencing pain, ask for an adjustment. One caveat: beware that aggressive adjustments from a teacher can sometimes worsen injuries,6 so it’s important to listen to your body and take responsibility for your own safety—more on this next time.

Sustaining the Practice and Next Steps

I’ve often heard that it takes 21 days to cement a new habit (even though some evidence suggests otherwise7). Regardless, at three weeks into my (nearly) daily yoga practice, I felt great. I had more energy and less stress. I was even waking up early to do yoga each morning, and I hate waking up early. I had either stuck the habit or just caught beginner’s enthusiasm—either way, I was happy.

This was also when I began to see—not just feel—changes in my body. It wasn’t dramatic, but I noticed more definition in my arms, shoulders, and legs, which was surprising because I was intentionally leaving the rest of my lifestyle unchanged. While bodyweight exercises and weightlifting have given me much more dramatic results more quickly, the benefit of yoga was that I wasn’t forcing myself through difficult routines and I always finished up feeling energized and relaxed instead of sore.

By the sixth week my practice felt, well, stable. I wasn’t as excited by the novelty of yoga, but it was something I did steadily. I spent more time thinking about what kind of practice I wanted when selecting videos, and I had picked several favorite video I kept going back to. I wasn’t necessarily doing an hour every day, but I usually managed more than 45 minutes five times a week.

And I finally found the peace of mind I was looking for.

I learned to keep my movement attuned to my breath. This is called Vinyasa.8 It was tricky for me, but it’s become one of the most important physical aspects of my yoga practice.

Mindful Vinyasa is a major part of how yoga helps your mind, and provides helps to relieve stress.9 In my opinion, Vinyasa and breathing exercises like Pranayama10 are part of what makes yoga a more holistic practice than just stretching or resistance training alone.

Your Next Action: Try a Few Videos

  • I still think DoYouYoga’s 30-day plan is a good way to get started. Try a few of their videos.
  • Next, head over to DoYogaWithMe and try their Burnout to Bliss or the Morning and Evening sequences.
  • Keep exploring or, if you like structure, sign up for DoYogaWithMe’s beginner program.
  • If you’re not following a curated plan, be sure to vary your routine. We tend to like to do what we are already good at. If you try different routines and styles you’ll find some surprises, and developing strength, flexibility, and balance will keep your body safe.
  • Try some Vinyasa routines. It’s fine if you can’t do it the entire time, but you want to bring your attention back to your breath when your mind wanders. This practice will help you get the most from Yoga.
  • If you have the time and ability, go to a couple of beginner’s classes. Even if you want to do the majority of your practice at home, it’s important to check in occasionally with a teacher so you don’t teach yourself bad habits. We’ll talk more about how to choose a class in my next article.

Notes:

  1. Wikihow, How to do the Sun Salute ↩
  2. The Art of Living, How to Do Surya Namaskar
  3. Eliza Martinez, Sore Muscles After Yoga. azcentral.
  4. Laurence Gilliot, Interview. With six years’ dedicated practice of yoga with a wide variety of styles and gifted teachers, Laurence’s classes are inspired by Anusara, Vinyasa, Restorative yoga, Yin yoga and Ayurveda. Laurence has also studied Buddhist mindfulness meditation on several retreats with Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh, co-facilitates a weekly meditation group and combines the Eastern practice of Buddhist psychology with the Western practice of Non-Violent Communication to coach both individuals and groups towards more fulfilled and joyful lives.
  5. In addition, Laurence recommended keeping my quads engaged during forward folds to protect my knees, and after reading up I now practice forward folds and some other stretches with a small bend in my knees to protect my hamstrings.
  6. Ivy Markaity, Good Pain vs. Bad Pain? How to Protect Yourself in Yoga Class. HealthCentral
  7. Ben Gardner, Busting the 21 Days Habit Formation MythHealth Chatter: The University College London Health Behaviour Research Blog.
  8. You’ll see some yoga routines described as a “Vinyasa flow,” which means you’re expected to transition between poses according to your breathing.
  9. Alex Korb, Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits. Psychology Today.
  10. Alisa Bauman, Is Yoga Enough to Keep You Fit? Yoga Journal.

Why don’t fashion designers make clothes for strong women?

lifting

Nobody wants to hear a woman in a size 2 complain, so I usually bite my tongue. But give me a minute. Women who work out are out of options when it comes to finding cute, non-workout-wear clothes and it’s time someone steps in to serve this market. Designers, listen up.*

When you believe in the holy trinity of bench, squat, and deadlift and have a penchant for pull-ups you re-cast the shape you were born with. Not that designers have ever pretended to understand an actual woman’s body, but they’re profoundly off the mark when a woman packs muscles. And the fashion world doesn’t even pretend to care. Reading a women’s magazine a while back brought on a conniption when I read a bit on how various body types should dress. Those of us with muscular quads, it advised, should wear long skirts to COVER THEM UP. WTF?

Do they know how hard I’ve worked for those muscles, that strength? No wonder women fear “bulking up”—if your waist whittles while your quads stay the same size as they transform from soft to sculpted, you’re out of the jeans-wearing crowd. Every so often I try a pair to see if anyone has caught on to the exploding number of women getting into lifting (hello, CrossFit – maybe you’ve heard of it?). And every time I leave the store empty-handed and annoyed.

My most recent shopping trip was a double whammy.  The size 25s that fit my waist would have cut off circulation in my thighs, while the 26s gaped enough at the waist to tuck a kettlebell in. We won’t even discuss the pancake arse that jeans are designed for (I refer you to the wisdom of Sir Mix A Lot).

jeans

Next up, an XS button-up shirt. I have no bustline to speak of, narrow shoulders and the ribcage size of a pre-teen, yet the shirt strained across my back à  la Hulk. Why? Because I make use of the muscles I came with. This was no surprise since I prefer Wonder Woman arms to snowman twigs.

Desperate once for a fitted, nautical striped top—and not into the  billowy look the size that fit my biceps would require—I tried on the XS which precipitated a humiliating conversation with the saleswoman about whether this would end in a Fat Guy in a Little Coat scene. (It didn’t, but I have popped buttons.)

chris farley

So come on, designers. I don’t expect to see a gun show at a fashion show anytime soon, but throw us a bone. Strong women are here to stay. If we can pay for spendy gyms, we can buy your clothes (have you seen the cost of Lululemon?). We don’t want to walk around all the time in our House of Pain shirts and yoga pants. I promise: if you build it they will come.

Readers: help me out! If you’re a fit, strong woman, what do you wear? Where do you love to shop?

The Best Coconut Water (Based on Nutrition and Taste)

coconut

Don’t you hate it when something you like on its own merits becomes trendy? I fell in love with coconut water on a 2010 trip to Thailand. The most refreshing and delicious drink I’d ever tasted, the water inside immature coconuts was sold on the streets for the equivalent of about 50 cents. But coconut water has become big business here in the United States, and not all brands do the delicious juice justice.

Too busy to read the whole article? [2800 words, an 11-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Coconut water has grown exponentialy in the United States recently and is poised to continue growing, due to marketing pressure and growers catching up to demand.
  • Coconut water’s health powers include decreasing blood pressure, preventing heart attack, and smoothing skin, among others—but all these benefits rely on tiny amounts of compounds found in fresh juice that may not survive industrial processing.
  • Multiple sources show that coconut water is better (though marginally) than both traditional sports drinks and plain water for rehydration during and after exercise.
  • Fresh coconut water tastes way better than any packaged variety we tried, but a few brands were worth buying; only one was a complete throwaway.

When I got home I found packaged juices in the “natural” section of my grocery store and at Whole Foods. I started drinking them for an energy boost when I worked out. Before long, it seemed like coconut juice was everywhere—the cheerful little packages even became a staple at gas stations. Celebrities showed up, making coconut water sexy. Exuberant health claims were made. All the buzz almost annoyed me enough to stop drinking it. Almost. I like coconut water too much to give it up, and aside from bourbon, it’s generally the only thing I drink besides water.

I wanted to get behind the hype and find out the true story behind coconut water. So I grilled some experts, read some papers, and did a taste test. Here’s what I learned.

Why the sudden boom in coconut water sales? In a word, marketing.

Coconut juice is big business. “It’s grown exponentially” in recent years, says David Hollister, sales manager for Amy & Brian—one of the first brands to sell coconut juice here in the United States. David sent me to the Wall Street Journal for industry numbers where I found it “has roughly doubled its revenue each year since 2005,” with U.S. sales in 2011 hitting $400 million.1 That’s a lot of cash courtesy of a humble street fare beverage.

Why so big, so fast? After all, “I suspect people have been using coconuts for a hundred thousand years going back to our primate ancestors,” food anthropologist Richard Wilk told me. And it’s only now catching on here?

“Sometimes we have to understand the marketers create a need,” sports nutritionist Doug Kalman says. David agrees. “Nobody buys anything in America without someone telling them to do it,” he says. And what have the big companies* been saying? “They’re overdoing it with the hype,” nutritionist Larisa Alonso told me. “And the coconut water companies are taking advantage of the American lust for healthy beverages.”

This isn’t the first time tropical products have come to us with such a marketing blitz. “A few tropical items … started as fads but stabilized and stayed,” Richard says. “Citrus—orange juice for breakfast. That was entirely a product of nutritionists and government and orange growers working together. They convinced everyone in America that drinking a glass of OJ in the morning was good for you. Bananas—the same thing. You have very strong companies, a government telling everyone that bananas were a perfect health food…those go back to the great age of colonialism when governments were looking for markets for tropical produce.”

*U.S.- No. 2 coconut water brand Zico is mostly owned by Coke, while O.N.E. And Naked are backed by PepsiCo.

The economics of coconut water

Part of the reason major companies are willing to invest in coconut water lies in profits. Depending on the brand, a single container of the elixir can cost several dollars at retail, well above the price of other juices or sports drinks.

How is it that something so cheap on the streets of Asian and Caribbean countries can run as much as a cocktail? “I don’t think the average person in America understands how their food arrives on their plate,” David says. “It takes an awful lot. There’s roughly two coconuts per can. … there’s multiple layers of distribution … it goes from the farmer to the consolidator to the factory to be produced, it goes into a can, into a case, into a pallet, into a container, shipped to the U.S. to a warehouse and sold to the distributor and then on to retailer and everybody is taking a markup along the way. When you see it on the shelf at $2.99 there’s not a lot of fluff in there because so much is built in.”

The boom has actually caused a shortage in some areas. Right now, “everybody is fighting for raw materials,” David says. And that means that producers will continue to have an incentive to promote coconut juice, regardless of what science might reveal about its nutritional value. “It takes five years for [growers] to try to respond [to demand] …people will plant lots and lots,” says Richard. “Then there will be a glut, prices will collapse. Smaller people will go bankrupt and only the bigger people will survive. We’ve seen it with almost every tree crop.”

Is coconut water actually healthy for you?

“For me as a nutritionist it’s all about relativity,” Larisa says. “How is it compared to other beverages Americans like to drink? In a lot of ways it can be better than soda or juice but does that mean it’s nectar from the gods? Absolutely not.”

Luckily, most giddy health claims have died down following a barrage of lawsuits. “Every company in the industry got hit or threatened with lawsuits because of claims on the packaging,” David says. But the juice is still a media darling, touted as bursting with potassium and electrolytes, beloved for its phenomenal rehydration abilities.

Doug took the question to the lab with a study for the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition:“Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men.”2

What did he learn? First, he says, “the science is pretty deep. You can go back to medical literature, to pre-World War 2 in the United States where it was used in IV hydration. … In India coconut water is used to rehydrate babies that suffer from diarrhea-induced dehydration.” But for this study, he wanted to look at coconut juice’s effect in the gym on rehydration and performance.

“We evaluated coconut water [in comparison] to different sports drinks … after the person exercised in an environmentally controlled room that’s like running in Florida outdoors until they’re dehydrated—until they lost 2-3% of body weight,” he explained. He and his fellow researchers measured how fast participants could rehydrate by looking at markers in blood and urine.

The findings? “We found no difference in sports drinks and coconut water on impacting sports performance,” Doug says. “Coconut water is just as effective as your typical sports drinks at supporting rehydration and performance. What’s surprising is coconut water is able to do this with less calories and less sodium than sports drinks.” Besides its rehydration potential, Doug likes coconut water for its potassium. “So many people don’t get enough potassium in their diet,” he says. “DASH diet studies show that when you increase potassium through adding fruit and vegetables—including coconut water—you have lower blood pressure, [better] quality of life, and reduced medical issues.”3

“Include noncaloric water for (the first) 75 minutes.” If you’re working out longer, “having coconut water with its potassium helps with metabolic reactions in body.”

That sounded like a cautious thumbs up. And yes, “including it can be a good strategy,” Doug says. However, he adds a caveat: “Because we have such a problem in this country where 60-70% of Americans are overweight or obese, if we’re making recommendations about hydration we need to know that lower calorie beverages will rehydrate just as well as high calorie beverages.” His lab-tested advice? “Include noncaloric water for (the first) 75 minutes.” If you’re working out longer, “having coconut water with its potassium helps with metabolic reactions in body.”

How about outside the lab? CrossFit trainer Allison Bojarski says “Lots of athletes show up to a workout at least a little dehydrated, so drinking anything that is hydrating is a good thing pre-workout, during workout, and post-workout. If coconut water’s tastiness will make athletes more likely to drink something, that’s a good thing.”

And that’s what the research found too. When we dug deeper we found one more study that showed that coconut water hydrates better than other options, while another study found it hydrated about as well, but was more palatable and so resulted in less nausea and stomach upset than plain water.4,5 Regardless of the reasoning, both studies recommended coconut water for hydration.

Beyond rehydration: do cytokinins, peptides, or vitamins matter?

So, we’ve established that coconut water can make an effective hydration aid. What about all those other health claims? The scientific literature has explored everything from using coconut water to control hypertension (high blood pressure)6 to its use in preventing myocardial infarction (heart attacks).7

The research on the health benefits of coconut water falls into two categories: (1) studies of the effects of fresh coconut juice from whole young coconuts and (2) studies of the effects of specific compounds extracted from coconuts. Both these types of studies have reported positive effects. However, we were unable to find any research on the effects of processed coconut water.

Here’s why this matters: the most important health benefits of coconut water appear to be derived from cytokinins (a type of hormone found in plants) and peptides (the building blocks of proteins).8,9 Although coconut water does contain a complex of B vitamins and Vitamin C (ascorbic acid, an important dietary antioxidant), both these vitamins are often found in other foods, so are not what makes coconut water uniquely healthy.

Without testing each brand of commercial coconut water individually, we have no way of knowing which cytokinins and peptides made the transition from fruit to can. First off, the chemical composition of coconuts can vary widely based on variety, age, and origin. Quality is most typically judged on taste, not health benefits. Second, processing can drastically change the composition of juice, regardless of source. Commercial juices are often filtered, heated, centrifuged, or pressed. Both cytokinins and peptides occur in very small concentrations as compared to carbohydrates and minerals found in coconut water; they could easily be stripped from the juice or altered in such a way that they no longer do anything for health.

Taking all that into account, I did my best to choose the best option available.

Testing brands of coconut water by taste and nutrition

WINNER

Real Coconut

Price: varies

If you’re going to join the coconut fan club, the options can be overwhelming—-and it’s not all good. “There was a point where people thought they could put coconut anything in a can and sell it,” David told me. “A lot of them frankly were putting something horrible in a can.” And the product can come from any number of sources. Amy & Brian source from Thailand but have looked elsewhere. “I’ve been to Sri Lanka and Cambodia, looking to see if we can source product and we have not found the right quality,” David says. “Sourcing is a big deal right now. Vita Coco is sourcing from four countries.” Some companies, David told me, use the byproduct of more mature coconuts harvested for milk—later filtering and pasteurizing the water that runs out of the nut onto the factory floor. It’s products like that, he thinks, that make some people think they don’t like coconut juice.

So how do you know which to buy? As a food writer I’m used to judging the merits of one food over another at competitions like the Jack Daniels World Barbecue Championship. So I staged my own blind taste test. All together I sampled seven options, including some of the biggest and most easily available brands, making sure to represent coconuts from most of the major producing countries. I also included an actual coconut (from Thailand) and sipped everything at room temperature (the better to detect the taste). I scored each on a scale of 1 to 10 for how coconutty it tasted, sweetness, and Mmmmm factor.

Runner Up:

Amy & Brian All Natural Coconut Juice

coconut water

$29 for a 12-pack on Amazon

Not surprisingly, the real coconut won by a long shot. Coming in second with the closest taste to the real thing and lots of sweetness was Amy & Brian. Dead last (and the only one I threw away after tasting) was made-from concentrate and revolting Zico.

On nutrition: Nutritionist Larisa told me fresh is best—not just for taste, but also because of the antioxidant properties and cytokinins that may be lost in pasteurization and other processing. Her advice marries up to the research conducted by our independent research team.

If rehydration is the only goal, any coconut water with an adequate blend of potassium and sodium should do, as these appear to be the minerals most responsible for rehydration. Fresh young coconut contains between 200 mg and 300 mg of potassium/100g of liquid and around 100 mg sodium/100 g liquid.9

Cheaper and also good

Realistically though, how many of us are going to chop coconuts every day? Since I couldn’t effectively judge based on nutrition, I continued my judging on taste alone. My runner up was Amy & Brian, which runs about $2.99 for 17.5 ounces. Full disclosure: I did interview an Amy & Brian representative for this article. While I took care to be sure my tasting was conducted blind, I just want to make note of any potential conflicts.

For those of us on a budget, cost needs to factor with taste. The most palatable option, then, for everyday drinking was Whole Foods 365 ($3.59 a liter) followed closely by Trader Joe’s ($2.99 a liter). Vita Coco was the least bad of the remaining options, and if you like your groceries to come to you then you can subscribe to a 12-pack (11.1 ounces each) delivery for $18.83 a month on Amazon.

So: Should you start drinking coconut water?

Fads come and go, and “experts change their minds every few years,” Richard says. It’s tempting to let the coconut frenzy turn you off, to let the product fall victim to its own hype. But for me, at least, I have to think coconut juice is the real deal—a tasty, good for you drink. So I might take all the hyped up health claims with a grain of salt, but I’ll remember what Richard left me with:

“Poor people have always appreciated coconuts. The water is always safe to drink, always pure. When someone was sick you would give them coconut water. Indigenous people all over the world have this incredible base of knowledge that’s come to them from a million and half years of trial and error.”

That’s a pretty strong endorsement, if you ask me.

Your next action: ditch the sports drink, grab some coconut water

  • Scientific studies agree that coconut water aids in rehydration during and after exercise, albeit for varying reasons.
  • The best coconut water comes straight from a fresh young coconut, but decent processed brands are available and should work for rehydration.
  • Prices are a bit steep at the moment, but will likely decrease as growers catch up to demand in the next five years.

References

  1. Esterl, Mike. The Beverage Wars Move to Coconuts. Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2012.
  2. Kalman, D.S., et al. Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men. JISSN 9:1, 2012.
  3. “DASH” refers to “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” a series of studies sponsored by the National, Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
  4. Saat, M., et al. Rehydration after exercise with fresh young coconut water, carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage and plain water. J Physiol Anthropol Appl Hum Sci, 2002, 21, 93-104
  5. Ismail, I., Singh, R., and Sirisinghe, R. G. Rehydration with sodium-enriched coconut water after exercise-induced dehydration. Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health, 2007, 38(4), 769-85.
  6. Alleyne, T., et al. The control of hypertension by use of coconut water and mauby: two tropical food drinks. West Indian med. j, 2005, 54(1).
  7. Anurag, P. and Rajamohan, T. Cardioprotective effect of tender coconut water in experimental myocardial infarction. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, 2003, 58(3), 1-12.
  8. Prades, A., et al. Coconut water uses, composition and properties: a review. Fruits, Mar 2012, 67(2), 87-107.
  9. Yong, J., et al. The Chemical Composition and Biological Properties of Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) Water. Molecules, 2009, 14(12), 5144-5164.
  10. Larisa Alonso, interview. M.S., L.N., R.D.N., nutritionist at Canyon Ranch. Holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Cornell University and a master’s degree in nutrition and immunology from the University of Texas School of Public Health
  11. Allison Bojarksi, interview.  Level-1 certified CrossFit trainer with a strong interest in nutrition’s impact on training, performance, and health
  12. David Hollister, interview. National sales manager for Amy & Brian
  13. Douglas Kalman, interview. PhD, R.D., Sports nutritionist and professor at Florida International University and a co-editor of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. A registered dietician, he also holds a doctorate in exercise and nutritional biochemistry.
  14. Richard Wilk: Provost Professor, interview. Anthropology Department, Indiana University

Can lifting heavy weights make you bulky? Not if you’re a woman.

woman weight lifting

We combine personal experience, three expert opinions, and a healthy dose of scientific research to explain why most women simply won’t get bulky from lifting weights.

Too busy to read the whole article? [1600 words, a 7-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Women lack the right balance of hormones, testosterone and growth hormone, to put on muscle mass the way men do.
  • When women start lifting, they complain of getting bulky because of a combination of fluid retention, inflammation and plain old “feeling ‘swole”
  • Even if you lift enough to put on some weight, many women [and men] prefer the change in body composition.
  • Supplements. Men and women react very differently to pre-workout supplements. Find out what supplements women can use to booster their performance in the gym.

irst off, let me explain my perspective. I took up competitive weightlifting in my 30s and ended up being pretty good at it—in 2011, I broke the American Powerlifting Association record for the squat in my weight class. I tell you this not to brag, but to explain that I wrote this article not as an outsider, but as someone who has actually lived through the training and science we’ll dive into below. (I also ended up overtraining my way into an ugly injury, but that’s another story for another day — stay tuned.)

When I started training, I never got bulky and I never needed to intentionally increase my mass. In fact, I dropped a pant size or two while I traded some cushy padding for clearly defined muscle. But one woman’s experience does not fact make. So I turned to a couple of experts for their input.  Dr. Krista Scott-Dixon, founder of Stumptuous.com, is the Lean Eating Program Director at Precision Nutrition. And Jerry Handley is a West Virginia University strength coach who works primarily with female athletes.

Women can get bulky, but it’s very difficult

Let’s get right to it. “It is possible for women to get bulky,” Jerry said. “But it is highly improbable. They don’t hit the perfect storm of variables needed.”

How improbable are we talking? “Less than 1/10 of one percent of women are going to hit it,” he said. “It’s going to take a huge amount of consistent long term effort, consistently applying yourself to training – not just recreational [working out]. And it’s going to take a big nutrition push.”

Simply put, women aren’t built the same way as men are and we do not gain muscle mass as easily. According to Jerry, although “the hormonal situation while lifting causes the same triggers in men and women,  men elicit – minimum –  10 times more anabolic hormones than females do, particularly testosterone, which is what actually encourages muscle growth. Even though females can train just as hard and put in the effort to eat, their actual response is much much smaller and slower than a guy’s.”

Or, as Krista put it, “men’s muscles are bathing in a testosterone soup.”

Let’s talk more about those anabolic hormones.* Two things are going on here. Testosterone is stimulated when you lift heavy. What does heavy mean? Jerry defines it as “anything they can do a max of 6 times.” That’s the rep range, according to Jerry, that elicits the highest testosterone. When you “feel the burn,” on the other hand, doing higher volume or spending more time under tension, that’s when you’re stimulating growth hormone. “Women are typically worried about lifting heavy because they think it will make them big but really, while the testosterone will help the muscles repair, it’s not enough to make the muscles much bigger,” Jerry said. “Especially when they’re dieting, lifting heavy can help them retain their muscle mass and retain their strength.”

*Hormones are naturally-occurring chemicals that trigger organs and muscles to perform actions within the body. There are two basic types of hormones involved in normal metabolism: anabolic hormones generally “build up” tissues while catabolic hormones break down tissues for energy. This is a really simplified explanation; we’re working on a full-blown article on hormones and we’ll link it here when it’s ready.

Since few women actually get bulky from lifting heavy, why do so many of us think we do?

Aside from the  very small percentage of women whom Krista called “genetically gifted, hormonally ready easy gainers,”  what’s with all the cries of “I get big!”? Even Jerry sees it with his college athletes. “When it’s the first time they’ve done serious weight training, at least half of them are worried they’ll get bulky,” he said.

Culprit #1: Self Perception

“The first thing to remember,” Krista told me, “is that our self-perception is generally inaccurate. We are all very poor judges of ourselves. I’ve had women swear they were growing giant biceps, and flex for me, and I can’t see anything. But they FEEL like their guns are getting swole. So that’s their reality. The same is true of the FEEL of body composition. Few people truly have the self-awareness and accurate perception to gauge body changes.”

Culprit #2: Fluid retention

Krista explained: “In the early stages of training, you get a lot of inflammation and the muscles draw in glycogen and water. (By way of simplified explanation I say that muscles are “fluffing up” although that is not really what happens; it’s just a handy visual.) The fluid retention and inflammatory process is what causes the stiffness and soreness, same as what happens if you sprain your ankle and it swells up. So, women will train for a couple of weeks and swear they have ‘bulked up’ — and perhaps they have, but it’s not muscle.” And that means it’s not permanent.

Culprit #3: Eating more

“Many women consciously or unconsciously eat more to compensate for an increased training load,” Krista continued. “Some are just hungrier; others deliberately eat more because they think they need it to support their training. More food = more mass… but not always muscle. Most people don’t realize how much body fat they’re actually carrying. I like to show an MRI cross section of an average woman’s thigh to give them the idea. The light/white area is fat; the dark/dense area is muscle. You can see the bone as a circle in the middle.”

Sort of #4: Muscle gain… eventually

“Now, I really do hate to put a figure on it, but we are probably looking at no more than 1-2 lb/month of lean mass gain on average, tops,” Krista told me. “Even 18 year old boys don’t add as much muscle in a short time as some women swear they do.”

Jerry agreed. When you’re new to working out “your system hasn’t learned how to use the muscle fibers enough to create the muscle damage which creates growth. It’s almost completely nervous system,” he explained. “They may look more toned but actual muscle growth is almost impossible in the first few months.”

To sum it all up, “I think what women are often responding to is a different feel rather than an empirical reality,” Krista said. “The body does feel different… it’s just that their interpretation of why that feels different (i.e. the assumption that it’s muscle, and not fluid retention, which is much more probable) is often incorrect. The only way to truly know what’s what is to get regular, accurate body composition measurements. Otherwise it’s just speculation and rampantly imprecise self-perception.”

What actually does happen when women lift heavy?

When Jennifer Hudy‘s boyfriend showed her an article from Nerd Fitness with before and after photos of a girl who lifted, she was heavier in the ‘after’ photo. “She was no longer skinny-fat; she was quite fit,” Jennifer said. “I had never heard of skinny-fat but then realized that was exactly what I was. My build was skinny, but just skinny and nothing more. I envied her body and wanted to look like that!”

Using The New Rules of Lifting for Women program, Jennifer “ended up gaining eight pounds in six months. To see the scale going up was quite intimidating, but since I never had a weight issue it really didn’t bother me too much because I liked the way my body was shaping up.  Not only was my body significantly changing for the better, but my attitude about myself and my self-confidence skyrocketed.”

At the end of the day, lifting weights will change your body. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

It feels like a cop-out to say it, but the changes in appearance induced by exercise will be different for each woman. Once again, hormones play a critical role. “Some women with healthy levels of estrogen and progesterone will see body recomposition that reinforces the hourglass shape,” Krista said. On the other hand, “many powerlifters notice that their waist thickens–not from fat, but from the increased mass and density of the spinal erectors, which are powerful spinal support muscles required for a strong deadlift. Many women in upper-body-demanding activities (such as boxing or rowing) may find their bra size changes as their back muscles develop.”

And that’s just what we can see going on. For me, my bone density shot off the charts. Like Jennifer, so did my self confidence. Once you know you can take on a freaking intimidating weight, things that used to worry you seem a lot less scary.

How does lifting heavy compare to low-weight-high-reps?

So I think we’ve made a good case for why lifting heavy weights can help transform a woman’s body without making her get bulky. But, there’s an inherent risk to getting started with weightlifting. Plus, there’s the cost of weights, a coach to correct your form, etc. Is it worth it?

Without going too much down the rabbit hole, there does seem to be some evidence that traditional workout regimens for women actually do more harm than good.

When I asked Jerry about this, he told me “The idea of … doing higher reps and smaller weights [has] pretty much been shown over and over that it’s a crappy idea. It is completely against what the body actually does.” Here’s why: “If you do high volume and cardio and take in lower calories you’re using too much energy [thereby] encouraging your body to break down muscle mass.” And if you’re body isn’t producing the testosterone necessary to put on muscle, any excess calories you intake after a hard workout are more likely to be stored as fat.

We’ll go into loads more details on specific workouts in future articles, but I thought Jerry’s explanation was worth sharing.

Your next action: get started

Here are some ways you can get starting weightlifting for body recomposition. We’ll update this section as we find more resources and as you leave us comments below.