Thus far, I have written about disciplined eating and taking care of your health. Now I would like to make a departure that may surprise you, and say a word in favor of the occasionally unhealthy meal. In general, what causes weight problems is not the meal you ate last Friday night, but the meals you are eating every day. If you have control over your diet and you are losing weight or have reached your desired weight, having a hamburger with french fries every six months will only be a blip on your overall diet plan. Simply stated: "With discipline comes freedom". We can use this mantra for many things in life, but with dieting and our desire for eating, it means an infrequent splurge is okay.

I recently walked into the doctors office for my yearly physical. While sitting and waiting to see the doctor, I wondered if the people who sit in their doctors' offices or pass through hospitals know that exercise will help them feel better and prevent some of their ailments. When I see someone with what appears to be muscle weakness, I know that with just a little strength training, their life would be so much better. I see people who are overweight and wonder if they do regular aerobic exercise. If not, why?

Changing a personal habit is probably the most difficult task for any of us. Unfortunately, some of our most difficult habits to break, including smoking, overeating, and poor food choices, relate directly to our health. There are also habits which form our responses to situations and events that impact our ability to live, work and interact with society, colleagues, friends and partners. Habits enable us to get to work on time and "do the right thing" when required. Some habits are considered bad and others good. We relish habits and even take comfort in the fact that "somethings never change."

During a sporting event, have you ever let your mind wander beyond the competition to observe the pure skill being displayed on the playing field?

Can Federer return to the top of the tennis world? For those interested in tennis or competitive sport, this is the debate. Given that Federer has a proven track record of dominating the men's circuit, his skill and ability to win cannot be questioned. Thus, where might Federer look to regain his advantage and return to the number 1 spot?

The insatiable search and hunger for the perfect body is perhaps the most unfortunate outcome of the fitness boom. We all have the image of that perfect body that we see on magazine covers, in fashion or cosmetic advertisements, walking down model or red carpet runways and walking down the street on any given day. With a lot of work, a select few of us might even be able to achieve that look. However, for the majority of individuals exercising regularly or just starting a new exercise program, achieving an exact replica of that look is impossible.

What is the perfect body? Without sounding glib, the perfect body is individual and it really does come from within. It is a feeling and a look that comes from being in shape and taking care of your body. It is not the magical transformation of a body that is born short and wide into a body that is tall and lean. Bone density, fat retention and genetics play large roles in how our bodies are shaped. Thus, "perfect" is truly unique to each of us. Our definition should never be more than, "The ideal combination of fitness and physique for my body type." Because if it is, you risk health problems.

Fifteen years ago, the parent of a young athlete came and asked me to make her daughter's legs and muscles long and lean. I took one look at the girl and saw a two-fold problem. The daughter was in a sport that required lots of power and strength, hence strong thighs and gluteal muscles (e.g. big thighs and hips). This, along with family genetics that assured she would never stand much more than 5 feet tall, led me to one conclusion: she would never have long muscles or long legs.

More troubling, and the basis for a different conversation, this mother made this request with her daughter in the room.

Such desires and requests for a total body transformation are not rare. Further, some exercise practitioners even suggest that their approach can make your muscles longer, thereby giving you that sleek fashion model or dancer look.

Imagine an exercise program that will lengthen your muscles. Do you know that the origin (starting point of your muscles) is fixed for life? Do you know that the insertion (the ending point of your muscles) is fixed for life? This means that your muscles are permanently attached in two places by tendons to your bones. How can your muscles get longer with an exercise program?

The simple answer: they can't. What happens with movement is that your muscles contract and lengthen within their given and permanent length. The muscle fibers slide back and forth, causing movement. Certain routines (power and strength) make your muscles bigger. Other routines, such as endurance training, make your muscles smaller, not longer. While either of these two routines can influence the size of your muscles, if you can still open your joints to normal full extension, then your muscles did not grow shorter. Nor did they get any longer.

People who have long and lean bodies have been given the DNA for longer bones and the corresponding longer muscles. Within this basic body structure, they can develop their fitness and muscle tone and corresponding appearance. Their workout routines did not give them long muscles. They are lean because their body fat is low and their muscles are long because their bones are long. If they choose to exercise regularly, they can build up their muscles to various degrees of thickness (hypertrophy). How big their muscles get depends on diet, type of exercise and DNA.

Fitness and health is good for everyone and for every body. Within each body, it is possible to develop muscle tone, lose body fat, look good and feel good. The glowing, healthy look that one exudes when walking into the room comes from being committed to exercise and living a healthy lifestyle. In order to achieve the look and feeling that you want, focus only on yourself and your personal health and fitness. Do not compare your body to those found in any magazine or on any poster. Your quest should be a distinctly personal undertaking, beginning with the body and focusing on an exercise program that leaves you feeling good - and healthy.

Starting an exercise program is easier than ever. There are health clubs and personal trainers opening up businesses in every town. The vast majority of trainers are well-trained, certified fitness experts dedicating to helping you improve your health. Do a web search or check the local yellow pages for a club or trainer. Ask your friends where they go for fitness and if they are using a local fitness expert to guide them through their routines. Then go out and start interviewing the local experts. Ask about their ages, certifications, education and experience. Do not wait: the fitness industry is here to help you live a better life.

Many universities offer degrees in the exercise sciences in fields such as Exercise Physiology, Kinesiology, Biomechanics, Exercise Science, etc. For those of us who have been around a bit longer, our undergraduate and masters degrees are in Physical Education. An individual with a BS or MS in physical education will have completed the same science courses as those students with the aforementioned degrees. Again, ask questions and do not assume that anyone, even the holder of a degree, should have carte blanche with your body and your life.

There are a plethora of certifications that exist in this field. Some are better than others, just like some college degrees are better than others. However, everyone who holds a degree in the exercise sciences commands a base level of knowledge and understanding of how the body responds to stress. With certifications, you can assume that in most cases, the individual has at least read about the body and its various systems and their responses to stress and has passed a test - some more rigorous than others. It is hard to compare a college degree to a certification course. Years of reflection, debate and practice can't be taught or condensed in a weekend or even a week-long course, although the higher-level certification workshops and courses featured the latest, most refined findings and practices in everything from nutrition to stretching routines to new methods and tools.

Thus the importance of asking questions. Make no assumptions. There is no guarantee that an individual with a college degree is any better at guiding you through an exercise program than an individual with a degree in Political Science, an athletic background, and a handful of certifications.

About 10 years ago, the field as a whole begin to shift towards a fitness approach called "Functional Training." Functional training gets you moving and physically fit without using machines. They are movement based. An example, yoga, is the oldest in the book - 5,000 years. A small number of us had been using that aptly named approach to fitness and sports conditioning for years prior, some even for decades and were getting fantastic results, but we were a clear minority among the many practicing fitness and coaching professionals.

Fortunately for the field and all of its customers, a well-known conditioning coach, Vern Gambetta, and a physical therapist, Juan Carlos Santana (not to be confused with the legendary guitarist), teamed up and started giving seminars on this concept of functional training. I developed my functional training knowledge under Igor Burdenko, PhD.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the general personal training customer or health club member finally started to receive a product that more closely mirrored the needs of daily life. Even athletes finally started to receive better and more appropriate training programs. Yet, even with the field making this full-scale shift in its approach to fitness, do not assume that every professional understands this concept of functional training and how to lead an exercise class.

In general, the tendency with many trainers is to focus on frequency, intensity and duration of exercise - all critical for administering an effective and safe exercise program. These three areas are backed up and thoroughly researched in the exercise sciences. Any fitness professional must understand these concepts. The problem, which too often occurs, relates to how they are calibrated within a specific exercise program. For example, if you are riding a bike, it is very easy to design a program based on these concepts, but what if you are getting a "Functional" or movement-based program and your fitness professional wants to increase your exercise intensity before you understand the movement and before your body is capable of making the movement safely? The answer is simple: A greater likelihood of injury.

It is very hard to get injured riding a bike, but while standing and moving your body with either a directive to increase your speed or to add resistance (small hand weights), you open yourself to injury. It is very important that your exercise teacher understand that crawling before standing, crawling and standing before walking, and finally walking before running are all critical concepts for a safe and effective exercise program. Does you trainer or gym specialist understand that until your movement skills have been developed and improved that you should not attempt to increase the intensity of your workout? For example, the addition of small hand weights might seem like nothing, but as soon as you push your arms straight out in front of your body, the stress on your lower back increases threefold. The stress on your shoulders also increases. Best to not add intensity to your Functional program until you can move your body in a fully coordinated fashion. Does your trainer have a test or understanding of when to increase the intensity of a functional or movement based fitness program?

In addition to learning about the background of your potential personal trainer or gym specialist, it is incumbent on you to fully understand your goals. Are you after weight loss? Weight gain? Improving your blood profile and your cardiovascular fitness? Do you want to prepare for a sport or some weekend activity that is taking place in 6 months?

Walk into a gym or the office of a personal trainer understanding your goals. Then ask numerous questions about the background, education and experience of the personal trainer, get a feel of his or her personality. Ask if they have ever been injured - Why? How? What was his or her recovery period like?

I cannot say that you should only choose an individual with at least an undergraduate degree in the field. There are many good and talented trainers and fitness experts with diverse backgrounds.

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