Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Back Pain: The Follow Up

I couldn't work out. At the time, I was working in a fitness center, unable to exercise. I compared this to being a recovering alcoholic, tending bar. Physically painful. Mentally challenging. Emotionally, close to impossible. There were several times the pain was so severe and the frustration so extensive that I broke down in tears--at home, and in public. I did feel a sense of ease when I read online that this was normal. Being able to identify with others brought upon the slightest bit of "comfort"--a word I wasn't very familiar with back then. Tying my shoes required a chair, at least 3 or 4 minutes, and infinite patience. I had learned that many people with severe back pain (in my case, a herniation at L5/S1) are prescribed anti-depressants because not only is the physical pain excruciating, but not being able to do what you enjoy and having to rearrange your life takes an emotional toll as well.

In my original post about back pain, I spoke of the experience leading up to my surgery. This follow-up entry takes a different stand point, covering the experience itself along with the two year recovery. I have known people with similar problems who have reached out to me for suggestions and input and I have the desire to help more people. My back went out in October 2010 as a result of too much activity, not enough rest and stretching. Prior to that, I had the occasional flare up which can be common among many people. However, when I wasn't able to stand up one Sunday afternoon, I knew something more serious had happened. My surgery took place in February 2012. It is my intention to provide insight, resources, and a connection with others (so important!) who are having a similar experience. This is based strictly on my personal story and I highly recommend consulting a doctor for more information.

When to See a Doctor
Any time you have persistent, physical pain that is keeping you from completing your daily activities--see a doctor. The longer you wait to be evaluated, the more likely you are to worsen the injury which may lead to permanent damage. Pain is a red flag! It signals that something is wrong and while it may not interfere too much at the time, you are likely compensating in other areas of your body. Your gait will change as you walk. Your posture will change, even the way you sleep and sit will change. Over time, this can also lead to muscle imbalances.

What Does a Herniated Disc Feel Like?
Some people who have MRIs will feel perfectly fine, yet their scans will show herniated disc. Others who are in pain will have scans that indicate a perfectly healthy spine. It is important to keep in mind that each person's problem and perception of the problem will vary. With a herniated disc, there tends to be nerve compression. I had a severely compressed sciatic nerve which resulted in an excruciatingly painful sensation down the back/side of my entire right leg (the herniation was on my right side of the spine). It felt like a string was tied from my hip to my ankle with a 50lb weight at the bottom. Other times, there was a burning sensation. Sometimes my leg tingled, like there were fire ants crawling along it. The outer side of my right foot went slightly numb--and it still is. One of the doctors said that is the last area I will (if ever) feel improvement because the sciatic nerve heals very slowly and the foot is the last place you will notice improvement.

Conservative Approaches

I recall the exact moment I contemplated getting on the ground for the exercises I was supposed to do, unsure of whether or not I'd be able to get back up. It hurt to lie down, it hurt even more to stand up. There are several methods of conservative treatments that include steroid injections, medication, physical therapy, massage, and chiropractic treatment. Acupuncture is also very common--one that I did not try, as I had all of the others mentioned. There are also a lot of natural remedies to keep the body healthy including eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and spices...along with incorporating collagen supplements, which I began doing in the spring of 2013.

Surgery Considerations
People will tell you stories about how surgery saved their lives. Others will tell you how surgery ruined their lives. Take their stories with a grain of salt. As Bruce Lee said, "Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own." It was about 1 year and 4 months after the initial pain that I was with my primary care doctor for a routine visit. Explaining to her that yes, I still had pain and, yes I was (a rock star for) dealing with it...she asked why I wasn't doing anything about it. Although I had tried nearly all possible conservative treatments, I had come to terms with the fact that "this is just how it is." And while the pain was as noticeable as an untied shoelace, I ignored it. However there comes a time when you have to ask yourself how much the problem is affecting your daily life. Are you unable to complete usual tasks and have you cut out activities you used to enjoy? Based on my symptoms and the MRI scan, I had two surgeons say I did not need surgery. Two other surgeons said they would operate. A short while later, I realized that the two surgeons who did not want to operate were both neuro surgeons. The other two, and one which I had my procedure with, were both orthopedic surgeons. In February 2012 I had a microdiscectomy and laminectomy at L5/S1.

As I laid in the hospital bed, I insisted that my mom take a photo of me with the current issue of Oxygen Magazine, my favorite source of fitness ideas and inspiration. I wanted to "save" the photo in case the day ever came that my story was published. I actually established this blog when I returned home to recover! Last November, during my first NPC Bikini Competition, I had the pleasure of meeting the cover model, Alicia Harris. She even tied my bikini top for me. It doesn't take a miracle to make things happen, it takes persistence and commitment. I hope to be an example of the possibility you can uncover when you stay focused and patient, despite the pain you are experiencing. Physical or otherwise.

Prevention and Recovery
Following surgery, I anticipated leaving my mom's house and spending the next couple of weeks, off from work, at my apartment. However, when I realized I couldn't put my shoes on or even bend over to pick up the toilet seat, I came to terms with the fact that I wasn't in a hurry to leave. The area of the incision was very painful in the days that followed. It took about five days before I was able to bend over enough to put my shoes on. From what I recall, I went back to work for half shifts after two weeks off. Over time, the flare ups have become less severe and less frequent. Upon completing physical therapy, I was very eager to get back in the gym. However, I knew it would take a great deal of time before I was able to do what I used to do (if ever). Considering it was all of the high impact, repetitive movements that brought my life to a hault, I was evaluating a new approach. One of the first things I did after therapy was attend a class at Barre Bee Fit. The small movements and high repetition methods of the barre methodology were exactly what I needed to strengthen my core and learn how to be gentle with my body while still feeling challenged. I appreciated the mind/muscle connection that the class emphasized and wanted to learn more about it. That summer I completed the instructor training and I currently teach 2 classes a week. For the most part, I am able to do everything I used to with the exception of running. My body doesn't like it. The right leg is still weaker than the left because of atrophy which resulted from nerve compression. If I do run, it's for 30-40 minutes max and only to get outdoors and enjoy the weather. I have spent a great deal of time researching various ways to reduce the pain, prevent pain and have come up with the following list of considerations.

-Heal with food. When your body is under stress, it becomes inflamed. Consider your current habits and see how they compare with the chart below.

-Be gentle with yourself. When it comes to exercise, "more" is not always a good thing. I typically do HIIT circuits twice a week, maximum. The quick movements, big range of motion resulting from burpees and mountain climbers should not be done in excess. Formats such as barre, yoga, and Pilates are a great compliment to those routines along with strength training. Remember, your muscles grow and you become stronger when you rest.

-Supplement with collagen. The changes I have made to my diet and exercise routine this past year have increased my strength. I have mentioned how much better I feel and how my back pain has decreased. No doubt, exercise is a significant part of this because of I have more muscle to carry my "load," which is also 15lbs lighter. However, it recently occurred to me that along with the benefits collagen provides for hair, skin and nails--which is why I began taking it last spring--it is also known for it's ability to support bone and joint health. In this article, we learn that collagen is the most abundant protein in the body that comprises the foundation of all connective tissue, bones, skin, and most other tissues. The NeoCell brand can be purchased here. 

-Evaluate. How old is your mattress? Are your shoes providing the support you need? Is your work station set up poorly, causing you to twist and turn to answer the phone? Do you spend too much time sitting down? All of these factors, including how your office chair is set up, can contribute to pain.

-Listen to your body. Years ago, my playlist and inner critique drowned out the voice of my common sense. I ignored the red flags of physical pain. It took this experience to realize the importance of moderation. This lesson in patience has given me the knowledge to educate others and give peace of mind that improvement IS possible. Because when tying your shoes without any pain is an accomplishment, it's one to be celebrated and shared. Find something in your own life that you can celebrate. Focus on the positive. Focus on the progress.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Alpha Amino Gummy Bears

Hey all! I was inspired by recipe I had seen for Cellucor C4 here is my modified version featuring the Alpha Amino gummies!  Alpha Aminos contain 5g of BCAAs and 11 additional amino acids including glutamine.  Amino acids are quickly absorbed into the blood stream and don't need to be digested--so they can fuel your muscles faster and more efficiently.  The alphas contain leucine too, maximizing the body's ability to fuel muscle, preserve muscle glycogen stores and reduce protein breakdown.  It's chia seed extract contains all eight essential amino acids as well as omega-3s, iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and fiber.  The Alpha Aminos are available at

1/2 c. ice cold water
3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 packet sugar free flavored gelatin

Stir powdered ingredients. Stir in water. Pour into mold (or leave in freezer safe container). Freeze for a minimum of ten minutes or overnight. 
I waited 15 minutes and they turned out amazingly well!

Store gummies in ziploc bag in fridge.

Interested in learning more about my online fitness programs and challenges? Click here to stay hot and get healthy!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Nutty Bar Protein Oatbowl

It's been a LONG time since I've been this excited over one of my creations. I love oatmeal, I never get tired of it...but, yes it can be boring. Bust through your oatmeal plateau by varying the texture and flavor with the treats listed below! The Kashi crunch and peanut butter goodness make this recipe very reminiscent of the classic Nutty Bar by Little Debbie. 

1/4 c. Regular oats
1/4 c. Kashi GoLean
1 scoop of Quest Nutrition Peanut Butter protein
1 T. Peanut butter 
2 T. Peanuts 
3/4 c water 

Combine oatmeal, Kashi, protein, cocoa and water in a microwaveable bowl. Microwave for approximately 1 minute. Top with peanuts and a side of peanut butter. 

One Year Later and Six Weeks Out

A lot has changed this past year. The following entry has been inspired by my own progress and is meant to provide encouragement and resources to help you reach your own goals. What has worked for me may be different than what works for you. My goal was to compete in a bikini competition (and now I'm six weeks out from my second!). While you may not now, or ever, plan to compete, consider this information as "food for thought" and make it your own! Your recipe for success is a combination of consistency, commitment, and hard work along with varying amounts of cardio, strength training, rest, and fuel--based on your goals and your current fitness level. At the very least, I hope my story provokes thought and that those thoughts fire up action!

In April of 2013, I weighed approximately 170 lbs and was at 20.3% body fat, according to skinfold measurements. Currently, I weigh 159 and, when measured in February, my percent body fat was 12.8%.  I am 6 feet tall. Oh, and in 1998 I weighed 210 lbs. But that's another entry. ;) There is a 3-4% margin of error using skinfold measurements but, over time, these numbers can help you stay accountable and will provide substantial evidence of progress. If this is something you would like to have done, I would contact a local university as they sometimes need test subjects for various classes in the kinesiology department. Muscle is more dense than fat.  It does not weigh more!! A pound is a pound.  A pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat. Therefore, it is possible that your waistline is getting smaller while the numbers on the scale don't budge. Rather than get discouraged, avoid relying on the scale and be sure to record circumference measurements as well. 

Up until April of 2013, my workouts consisted primarily of cardio and a lot of body weight exercises. I was doing plyometrics and HIIT, burning calories, but not building much strength. But trust me, I thought I was in good shape! It's important to note that back in February 2012, I had surgery for a herniated disc and ever since was "afraid" to begin strength training again. When a local gym reached out to me (Hard Pressed/Chicago, IL), I put my fears to the side and committed to meeting with them twice a week, for 30 minutes. While I didn't trust myself to lift weights, worried I would reinjure myself, I figured someone else would be able to coach me through it.
Thirty minutes doesn't sound like much, but it was 30 minutes of non-stop, butt-kicking, muscle-building, weight training. I specifically remember days my legs felt like they were up pushing against a concrete wall, rather than the leg press machine. It was that difficult. More than once, words I otherwise NEVER say were muttered under my breath. It more than "sucked." And I loved it. I had worked out for years, and included strength training fairly consistently, but never to this extent. According to Mayo Clinic strength training also helps you:

  • Develop strong bones. By stressing your bones, strength training increases bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Control your weight. As you gain muscle, your body begins to burn calories more efficiently. The more toned your muscles, the easier it is to control your weight.
  • Boost your stamina. As you get stronger, you won't fatigue as easily. Building muscle also contributes to better balance, which can help you maintain independence as you age.
  • Manage chronic conditions.Strength training can reduce the signs and symptoms of many chronic conditions, including back pain, arthritis, obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
  • Sharpen your focus. Some research suggests that regular strength training helps improve attention for older adults.
In November of 2013, I competed in my first bikini competition. I was thrilled to have accomplished something that I had wanted to do ever since I first got my hands on Oxygen Magazine and "graduated" from Women's Workout World to the Rec Center at Illinois State University. Trust me, this was "years" ago. ;) While I was in a class of about 20 competitors and did not place, the accomplishment itself was enough of a reward.

After the show, I continued working out at Hard Pressed until January 2014. At that time, I made the decision to train on my own--realizing that if I made so much progress with just two sessions of 30 minutes per week, how much could I achieve by lifting more often? While there's no doubt that a strength coach can and WILL push you beyond your limits, my time at Hard Pressed has inspired me to "reach" for that level of difficulty. A strength coach also ensures proper form, continual progress and is beneficial for countless reasons. I am beyond grateful for all of the strength coaches at Hard Pressed. They brought me through a major fitness plateau and provided the accountability I needed at the time. Currently, I spend about 40 minutes per lifting session, and aim for 4-5 days/week. Usually I emphasize upper body day (back and chest), leg day, and glutes day (yes, mine NEED a day of their own--spend more time on what needs the most improvement). Throughout the week I incorporate arms, shoulders and abs.  There are times I close my eyes during the last couple of reps because if someone is looking at my face, I don't wanna know!  My weekly cardio usually consists of teaching a spin class, two 30 minute sessions on the StepMill, and typically one or two HIIT/plyometric workouts. I also walk about 1.5 miles round trip to the train Monday through Friday. Walk more, take the stairs, move your body! It adds up. Remember, these are ingredients for my own recipe of progress and may or may not be what works for you. Use this information as a guideline, not a rule. I have posted various workout videos on my blog if you are new to fitness or wanting to add variety. Please contact me if you would like a customized program based on your goals and current fitness level. I am an AFAA Certified Personal Trainer and Intructor. I do not currently provide nutritional programs but could put you in touch with someone who does.

As an athlete, I am a firm believer that supplements will help improve the efficiency and intensity of your program. Throughout my transformation, I have supplemented with Cellucor whey and Cellucor BCAAs. Following my show in November, I began using Cellucor's best selling fat burners: Super HD and CLK. HD's fatty acid synthase inhibitors (camellia sinensis extract, tuber fleeceflower extract and Chinese mistletoe extract) can help the body to reduce fat storage. They are also responsible for appetite control...HD contains caffeine to reduce fatigue and help mobilize fat usage when taken 30 minutes or so before a workout. Rhodiola is another key ingredient (I used to take it alone before I knew about HD!). It improves mental energy, focus, etc. AND helps the body utilize fat (which pretty much everything in the product does! haha) It comes as a pill too, but I prefer the powder so I up my water intake...and it's a great replacement for coffee in the A.M. CLK is a non-stimulant weight loss aid that features clinical doses of four of the most highly regarded, highly publicized ingredients on the market today; CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid), Raspberry Ketones, 7-Keto and Carnitine. I also take fish oils and a multivitamin. I continue taking these products daily. They are not magic pills; they are meant to compliment a fitness program and healthy diet.
Stay tuned for my post-competition, bikini-prep entry. It will provide a more in depth look at my training, nutrition and more (including a circuit workout you can do at home!). Questions, comments, feedback? Let me know.