Friday, December 23, 2011

Bellydance and Weight Loss

Something I hear a lot, is "Wow, bellydancing has got to be great exercise!". And yes, it absolutely can be, and it is for me because I spend hours upon hours doing it. But the question is:

Can you really loose weight bellydancing?
Yes, but it depends on how you're doing it. I'm sorry to say that a class or two a week will hardly put a dent in your calorie consumption, let alone declare war on your existing fat stores. In dance class, a lot of time is spent explaining the mechanics and technique of each movement, and all that time is lowering your heart rate!

Ok, so how DO you loose weight bellydancing?
The answer to this question is multi parted. The first element is the frequency of your dancing. An hour or two a week of any exercise is generally not enough to target fat cells, for reasons we'll address later. According to recent research, people who were successful at loosing weight worked out for at least an hour on most days of the week.
The second element is the intensity of your dancing. You must keep your heart rate elevated long enough to not only trigger muscle growth, but to switch to using fat as fuel. We're talking fast paced traveling shimmies, level changes, large extroverted turn and traveling sequences, shimmy endurance drills, practicing your entire repertoire without stopping except for a swig of water or to change the music . . . etc. Basically, whatever gets your heart pumping and keeps it pumping for at least 40 minutes.

Ok, so that's awesome! To be honest, if you dedicate time each day to a decent drilling session, you can indeed "loose some weight while having fun and getting in touch with your feminine side" (to quote almost every bellydance workout DVD out there). But I always say knowledge is power, and understanding the scientific factors behind fitness can really help you to actually do it! So let's look at some other factors that when combined, can not only skyrocket your fat burning potential, but increase your health, energy levels and confidence.

PS: The following is not just a good way to loose weight, but to be healthy in general. Health is not a destination, it is a journey. This is how I live my life even though I don't need to loose weight. Please also keep in mind that weight loss is not about looks it's about health. And health doesn't exist in the extremes - either too heavy or too thin. Especially for dancing, health is critical. You must have good strength, great cardiovascular health, high energy levels, and more nutrition than the average person. And dancers do actually need high calorie diets, just like athletes. What's more important is the source of your calories . . . more about that later. Also, everything in this article is shadowed by the information in this book. Diet for Dancers is one of the single most illuminating books about health, nutrition and weight loss I've ever read. You need it. Go buy it.

Turning fat into fuel
Did you know that most physical activity is fueled by phosphorus? Yep, most daily activities don't even balance out your calorie intake! But don't panic, all you need to know is how to turn your body into a fat burning machine, and it's not as hard as it sounds. The keys are cardio exercise and muscle mass. And by cardio exercise, I mean huffing, puffing, sweat pouring exercise. Light cardio will use calorie intake for fuel, meaning you can burn off the candy bar you just ate, but it won't touch your tummy pooch. To start melting off the pounds, you've got to crank up your workout into true cardio. That's when your body decides to finally break out the big guns and use up its survival instinct comforts. In the natural world we lived in thousands of years ago, fat is gold and calories of any kind are the meaning of life. That's why we are so attracted to fat, sugar and salt, and why it can be nearly impossible to put down the bag of chips! If you've ever felt like you need fatty, sugary food, well it's because your body really honestly does think it needs it. Even in this world where calories are evil and the only thing more evil than calories in general are calories from fat because we live in a sit down world (sit at your desk, sit at home, sit while going to work or going home, ok run on sentence). WHY do our bodies not get the message that we are in fact not in any danger of starving to death?? O_O . . . you may be asking yourself.

Because the food we eat saps the nutrition right out of our bodies, replacing it with empty calories.
So that brings us to the next important factor - nutrition. Things like chips and cookies aren't just high in fat, they are almost negative nutrition. Sugar (Remember that starches and carbohydrated break down into various kinds of sugar, more on that later), especially massive ammounts, sap nutrition from our bodies. To top it off, artifically engineered nutrients that are added to the food probably don't actually do us much good. Some recent research has shown that the body recognizes vitamins in their natural state (surrounded by the compounds that accompany them) far better than it recognizes lab made nutrients. It is also harder to overdose on most vitamins in their natural state. This has scientists scratching their heads a bit because chemically they are the same thing in theory. The body just responds differently.
What happens is that in the nutritional void and the cloud of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated canola oil our bodies can actually go into starvation mode. Your body may be getting empty calories and saturated fat, but it isn't getting the nutrition it needs to keep all your systems in order. This not only creates fatigue, deppression and a host of minor health problems, but triggers cravings for salty things if you're low on minerals (minerals are salty), cravings for sugar if you're low on vitamins C, A, etc (fruits are sugary) or fat if you're craving things like vitamin E or omega 3s. But unfortunately we reach for chocolate cookies and salt and vinegar chips instead of an apple, some leafy greens and some almonds. This is why it can be so hard to control what you eat, but if you're smart and realize why you are craving what you are, you can slate your cravings while adding nutrition and avoiding massive amounts of fat, sugar and useless fluff.

So, let's get some real nutrition
Nutrition is NOT a lack of calories, and it is certainly not a "light" packaged, frozen dinner (which is low in calories and everything else, leaving your still hungry and more likely to just eat something else, like the cheese its staring you down from the cupboard). Lean meat (if you eat it), eggs, leafy greens, some fruits like avocados and nuts are a great way to get protein and healthy fat (fat that can make your skin smooth and your brain function better and not just sit uselessly on your hips) Did you know that leafy greens are actually a better source of protein than meat? If you look at the protein levels that exist in both before they are eaten, yes the meat wins. However, the protein found in meat is actually very hard for the body to use effectively. The protein found in leafy greens and other vegetable sources is ready to go! It's all about absorption. Another similar myth is that dairy products are the best sources of calcium. WRONG. High in calcium in its natural state, yes. But fat cancels out calcium absorption, and dairy products, even low fat ones are high in fat. (Low fat dairy products may actually be worse for you - they just pulverize the fat, making it too small to absorb effectively, but it still cancels out the calcium!). A study by Harvard following 77,761 women between ages 34 and 59 found no decrease in bone fracture risk in women who consumed high levels of dairy products versus those who did not consume dairy products.

Make your food work for you
I would like to refer you now to the book Eat More Weigh Less. Everyone who knows me knows that I eat a lot. I eat frequently and a lot at once. It's not how much you eat, but what you eat. There are plenty of delicious foods out there that don't dish out thousands of calories per serving. This wonderful book puts food in perspective. It compares the nutritional, fat and calorie content of healthy foods to unhealthy foods. For example, you'd have to eat pounds upon pounds of corn to get the same amount of calories in a small hamburger with french fries. I dare you to try to eat that much corn. The fact of the matter is that no one ever got fat off of say, celery. It's impossible. In fact, some foods are super weight loss champions! Celery is actually a negative calorie food. It's full of fiber, which will fill you up, but it is complex and hard to break down, and the body will actually spend more calories digesting it than it gains from eating it! Brilliant! Another great weight loss champion is the grapefruit. It actually contains compounds that line fat cells, preventing your body from stocking up! I don't recommend eating a ton of grapefruit, because it can put a strain on the liver's wash cycles in regular high doses, but a little here and there is very good for you!

Almost everything you eat turns into sugar.
Literally almost everything. Sugar isn't just sugar, some are better for you than others. For example, fructose is far better than sucrose. Fruit is the most common source of fructose, and causes less tooth decay than other sugars. It is also broken down in the upper intestine and sent off to the bloodstream, providing energy to the brain among other things. Sucrose is broken down in the lower intestine, which causes bloating and gassiness.
So aside from eating things that have sugar content on the label, what else breaks down into sugar? Carbohydrates - cereal, bread, pasta, rice, oatmeal, potatoes, etc. all break down into various kinds of sugar. All fruits are high in sugar, as are many vegetables. Even milk has sugar. Point is, we get all the sugar we need from the good foods we should be eating. In addition to that however, we pile on the processed sugars found in all the junk we eat. This overdose can cause mood swings, bloating and all kinds of nasty things.

Burn fat in your sleep.
A huge factor in health and weight loss is building muscle. Muscle takes enormous amounts of energy to sustain. And calories are energy.  If you have a large volume of muscle, your body will have to burn huge amounts of calories just to feed those muscles around the clock, regardless of what you're doing. Muscle will increase your metabolism and burn calories (which your body will eventually start raiding fat storage for). After a good hard workout (especially one combining cardio and weight lifting or resistance training) your body will burn extra calories for as long as 14 hours after your workout! This effect, however is not found in low intensity exercise such as walking. You have to feel the burn, because what's causing that increase in calorie consumption are your muscles recovering and growing.

Step away from the scale
If you're trying to loose weight, the scale is not your friend. Why? Because it's lying to you. Well, it's not really lying, it's just that you don't want to loose weight you're trying to loose fat. Big difference. The reason for that is that when you're working out you are building muscle. Muscle is denser than fat and a pound of it will take up much less room than a pound of fat. If you loose a pound of fat, that's a lot of fat! But in your journey of loosing that fat you may have easily put on a pound of muscle. Your scale will stay the same and likely discourage you, even though you are actually smaller. The tape measure is your friend! A tape measure will give you a much more accurate result on your fat loss than your scale will. It's also important not to obsess. No matter what the fad magazines tell you, you're not going to drop x pounds in a day. Measuring twice a week in the morning is sufficient.

Don't focus on your target weight
Try not to focus on your end goal, whether it's a target weight or whatever. Studies show that those who focus on their long term goal tend to get overwhelmed and fall short or give up. To succeed, you have to focus on the short term goals. Focus on small, attainable goals. When you get up in the morning try saying "I'm going to eat a healthy breakfast" and see that through. Chances are, you'll feel so good after breakfast that you'll have a salad for lunch. Even if you had told yourself "I'm going to eat healthy today" you're more likely to fail. You will be more likely to feel deprived of that snack in the cupboard if you feel like you can't eat it than if you tell yourself to maybe eat it later. Stay focused in the moment, and set goals to be proud of yourself at the end of the day. Before you know it you'll look in the mirror and notice the difference!

Don't deprive yourself, simply add healthy foods
If you give in to eating a cookie, tell yourself you can have the cookie if you eat a carrot too. You get more nutrition than eating the cookie alone, you probably won't eat another cookie and hey - you still got to eat the cookie! In fact, eat some celery and take the stairs and you might put a dent in some of those cookie calories! Deprive yourself of things you like and you will probably give in. My rule is to eat the same amount of veggies as snack food. So get yourself a little bowl of pretzels, but fill half of it with baby carrots. The carrots will actually fill you up, preventing you from eating a whole bag of pretzels.

Don't count calories, and focus on being happy!
Remember that calories are not created equally. Calories gained from a salad are not going to affect you the way calories from a loaded baked potato will, period. Furthermore, a study following hundreds of thousands of people loosing weight (and determining the factors of those who were successful versus those who weren't) found that those who counted calories tended to not loose weight, or even to gain weight! I think there are two reasons for that - one that low calorie diet foods generally leave you hungry and sap nutrition, as discussed beforehand, and that obsessing and dwelling will only frustrate you. Looking at your calorie count at the end of the day instead of thinking about how great you feel creates depression and cravings. Depressed people are more likely to put on weight for a number of reasons. Depressed people do not experience things as well - food literally doesn't taste as good, and people may actually eat more to try to obtain that good flavor. Food also won't trigger the normal dopamine and seratonin responses. And whether you're depressed or not, trying to hit a number (and likely failing) can be frustrating and depressing, leading you to comfort foods or even wanting to give up.

Don't grab the whole container!
Whatever you do, do NOT nab the whole box of snack crackers, especially if you mindlessly munch in front of the telly or computer. Allow yourself to have some, and enjoy it. But put some in a bowl (with those carrots, mind you) and savor them. Once you sit down, you're way less likely to go all the way back into the kitchen for more than you are to just keep reaching into the box (and before you know it, they're gone and you've just knocked back 1950 calories and 91 grams of fat! Pst that's what's in a box of four cheese cheese its, eek!) If you can manage it, eat something healthy first. You'll be fuller and more satisfied, likely to eat much less than you would otherwise, and you just may take long enough eating that your craving may pass, avoiding the unhealthy snack altogether! But if you still want the snack, go ahead and have it. It's not the end of the world (but eating the whole box might be).

The grocery store is the battlefield
Get yourself inspired and motivated before you go the grocery store, and eat before you go (hungry shoppers will buy more food). Make a list, better yet get a list of healthy recipes you want to eat and then make your list (gets you inspired about the yummy dishes you can make!) and stick to it. Don't even go down the snack food isles. Buy lots of fresh or frozen fruits and veggies (avoid cans which are lined with BPA), nuts and lean meats (or not). Them when you get home, wash and prepare your fruits and veggies and put them in clear containers at eye level in your fridge. Put your nuts and other healthy snacks at eye level in the cupboards. When you get the munchies and "just want to grab something" you're way more likely to grab something healthy if you don't have to wash it and chop it up.

In conclusion
Eating right, exercising and weight loss don't have to be painful. Keep a positive attitude and stay in the moment. Enjoy life, don't obsess, and think about the long term effects. Focus on health, not weight. Focus on happiness, not calories. And dance! ;)

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