Coconut Oil: Miracle or myth?

Celebrity doctors and health food enthusiasts alike are touting coconut oil as the new miracle food. From preventing Alzheimer’s disease to promoting weight loss to giving you silky-smooth skin and even soothing diaper rash, it seems like there’s nothing that coconut oil can’t do. Or is there?

Health or hype?

Coconut oil isn’t a new food, but it’s gained popularity in recent years. This is partly thanks to vegans. People who eat a vegan diet don’t consume any animal products. Coconut oil isn’t an animal fat and it’s solid at room temperature, making it an excellent vegan alternative to butter.

Scientists have also been taking a closer look at coconut oil lately. Coconut and coconut oils have long been on the nutrition naughty list since they’re high in saturated fat. One teaspoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat (compare this to 2 grams of saturated fat found in olive oil) — more than half the saturated fat most people should eat per day.

This type of fat is unhealthy because it clogs arteries, raises your LDL or “bad” cholesterol and ups your risk for heart disease. Plus, most processed coconut oils contain partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats. This type of fat is considered to be the most harmful fat because it not only raises LDL cholesterol, but it also lowers HDL or “good” cholesterol levels.

However, some experts say that not all saturated fats are created equally. The main type of saturated fat found in coconut oil is lauric acid. Preliminary studies show that lauric acid increases the levels of HDL in the body and lowers LDL. What’s more, virgin coconut oil doesn’t contain hydrogenated oils or harmful trans fats so it’s a healthier option.

But even if you use virgin coconut oil, the jury is still out on whether or not coconut oil is good for you. There are no scientific studies to date that back up any of the health claims of coconut oil. While the nutty, vanilla flavor may taste great in a batch of cupcakes, coconut oil probably won’t rev up your metabolism, enhance your memory or clear up your acne.

Should you use coconut oil?

Like all foods and beverages, consuming coconut oil is fine in moderation. Experts are hesitant to label coconut oil as “nutritious,” but they agree that in small amounts, it probably isn’t harmful. Try substituting it for butter in baked goods, sautéeing vegetables in it or using it as a base for salad dressings. Keep in mind that coconut oil is high in fat, so use it sparingly.

There’s also probably no harm in applying coconut oil to your body. Some people say that using it as a lotion can help clear up sunburn, eczema and psoriasis. Others claim that it softens hair better than any conditioner on the market. Even if coconut oil doesn’t live up to the hype, at least you’ll smell good!

Have you tried coconut oil? I drizzle it over sweet potatoes before roasting them, and it tastes delicious!


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5 Fitness Books (You Didn’t Know Were About Fitness)

Athletes understand the value of cross-training, but did you know that cross-reading can be just as valuable? Some of the best insights into your training will come from experts in other fields. If you’re looking for something to read this spring, try one of these fitness classics from other sections of the library. Bonus points for getting the audio version to listen to while you work out.

Getting Things Done (David Allen)

This classic business book sells as a formula for “stress-free productivity.” There’s a good chance you’ll apply its core ideas to organizing your life and business, just like millions already have.

For fitness, you’ll focus on the first section of the book. It’s all about priorities and setting goals, and will help you frame exactly why you’re working on your fitness, and how you’re going to get where you want to be.

Tao of Jeet Kun Do (Bruce Lee)

One look at the iconic photo of Lee’s bare torso and you know he has a thing or three to say about fitness. Tao is the central treatise on the martial art he developed after exposing his early Wing Chun training to other martial influences in Seattle and Los Angeles.

It also espouses a simple philosophy. Study hard. Use what’s useful. Discard the rest. Understanding and internalizing this concept, especially in Lee’s context of physical and personal development, will help anybody’s fitness program.

Strength Finder 2.0 (Tom Rath)

Rath’s concept turns the typical model of personal development on its ear. If you work to improve the areas where you’re weak, after years of effort you end up average. But if you spend that same energy on areas where you’re strong, you can become world-class in that arena.

Fitness is a bit different. If you’re strong and flexible, but overweight, you haven’t reduced your exposure to illnesses like heart disease and type II diabetes. Still, Rath’s insights into development and motivation can help you develop a fitness program that keeps you excited about your workouts and meal plans.

The Four-Hour Work Week (Tim Ferriss)

This one’s all about “lifestyle design,” and offers techniques and philosophy for creating exactly the life the reader wants to live. It tends to over-promise on what’s possible for the average working family, but still offers a compelling mindset and oodles of tools.

In terms of fitness, you’ll read this for the time and life hacks. Those tools include dozens of ways to find three or four extra hours of time or productivity each day … so say goodbye to “I don’t have time for fitness.” If you love this, also check out The Four-Hour Body and The Four-Hour Chef, two fitness-centric titles by the same author.

The Way of the Peaceful Warrior (Dan Millman)

A classic in the martial arts community, this is the fictional biography of a competitive gymnast who meets a spiritual guru and how that changes his life. It’s usually filed under “inspirational” and fits the description.

The fitness advice has as many myths as it does proven advice, but read this one for stress relief. The narrator learns life lessons and simple meditation techniques you can put into place tomorrow, and use for the rest of your life.

Honorable Mention: Biographies

Any biography, any time. Whenever you start to feel that your fitness goals are too much, read the biography of somebody like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Kevin Maynerd or Conrad Hilton. Nothing’s quite as inspiring and true stories of people who did incredible things.

The Link Between Emotional and Physical Endurance

“Visualize the win” is one of those phrases that all athletes have encountered at one time or another. Affirmations and visualizations are by no means a new addition to training tactics of athletes. It’s well recognized that a positive mindset during training and competition will help you push yourself even further and perform your best.

For good reason, these methods continue to be used and promoted. But new research has emerged that really gives weight to the whole practice. What does this study show? How can you use the information to improve your performance?

The Research

A significant body of evidence already exists that links personality traits, such as stress management, with cardiovascular health. Researchers at Florida State University College of Medicine, however, wanted to understand this connection more fully. While previous studies had explored the effects of personality on overall cardiovascular health in respect to lifespan and predisposition to illness, this new study hoped to reveal the connection between cardiovascular fitness and certain personality traits.

During the course of the study, 642 participant were assessed on neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. These five measurements were then used to create a profile to determine how resilient their personality was.

Each subject then had their resting and walking energy expenditures measured. The study found, when all the numbers had been compared, that subjects with more resilient personalities were more physically fit. These people walked more quickly, had a greater aerobic capacity and used less energy.

Because the ability to maintain healthy energy levels is directly associated with longevity and the prevention of age-related diseases, the study shows that a positive, resilient personality can actively lead to a longer, healthier life.

What You Can Do

It’s all well and good that being positive can help in so many different ways, but what if that’s just not who you are?

As frustratingly simple as it sounds, try to think more positively. Many studies have indicated that people who practice positive self-talk experience less stress and all of the negative side-effects that it brings with it.

For example, instead of just thinking “I’ve never done that before,” focus on the fact that it’s an opportunity to learn something new. Practice putting these positive spins on things that you deal with in your daily life and you’ll quickly notice that you feel less anxious and more energetic.

In relation to your fitness routine, those age-old affirmations are just as good now as they ever were.  Continue to encourage yourself and focus on what you’re capable of accomplishing. A major step toward building self-confidence is setting achievable goals.

Each time you set, and reach, a progressive goal you will see that you are capable of doing more and more challenging things. Measure your progress, as well, whether it be in your mile time or weight, to have tangible proof of how far you’ve come.

But it’s worth noting that the researchers in the above-mentioned study discussed the importance of having a resilient personality. This means more than just positive thinking. It means that even when you face a hardship, maybe even taking a few steps backwards, you have the ability to recover.

Even if you do fail to reach a goal you set for yourself, try to turn that experience into something positive. Use the frustration you felt as a motivation to improve.

Have you experienced the power of keeping a positive view? Please share your experiences in the comments.


Skin Cancer: One of the Biggest Threats to Outdoor Athletes

In general, exercise is a good thing. However, if you’re an outdoor athlete, take note: being active outdoors puts you at a high risk for skin cancer — which could be deadly.

Outdoor Athletes and Skin Cancer

If you run, bike, golf or play other sports outside, you have an increased risk for skin cancer (including both nonmelanoma and melanoma skin cancers), and not only because you spend so much time in the sun. Sweating makes your body more sensitive to the sun’s harmful rays. This makes the risk is twofold: spending time outdoors ups your risk of skin cancer and sweating makes your skin even more vulnerable to damage. Plus, with heavy sweating, some sunscreens come off and stop being as effective.

The risk is even greater for athletes who participate in certain sports. If you’re a rower or surfer, you’re even more susceptible to skin cancer since the sun’s rays reflect off water. Skiers, snowboarders and other alpine sport athletes have an especially high risk, too, because ultraviolet (UV) radiation increases at high altitudes and the sun reflects more off snow- and ice-covered surfaces.

Avoiding the Burn

Thankfully, you don’t have to stop exercising and give up your healthy habit in the name of cancer prevention. Skin cancer can be prevented.

The best way to reduce your risk of skin cancer is to use sunscreen whenever you’re outside, even on cloudy days, since 80 percent of the sun’s dangerous UV rays can pass through clouds. Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher that guards from both UVA and UVB rays. These tips can also help protect you from the sun:

·         Be generous with sunscreen. You’ll need approximately one ounce of sunscreen to properly cover your entire body. It works best when it’s lathered on thickly. Apply sunscreen on all exposed skin, including your lips and ears. Choose a sport variety or one that’s sweat or water resistant.

·         Put it on before you head out. The sun can harm your skin in as few as 15 minutes. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours and after swimming.

·         Cover up. Some fitness apparel companies make clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) number or on the label. This material absorbs UV rays and stops them from hitting your skin. Always wear a hat and sunglasses that block UV rays, too. Invest in a pair of sunglasses with wraparound lenses to shield the sides of your eyes from the sun.

·         Seek shade during midday. Avoid the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This is when the sun is at its highest and UV rays are at their peak. This is also the hottest time of day, so working out in the morning or evening hours will also feel more comfortable.

·         Be mindful of the UV index. The UV index measures the amount of UV light reaching the ground on a particular day. The UV index ranges from one to 11. The higher the UV index, the stronger the sun’s rays. Be extra careful outside when the UV index is high.

How do you protect yourself from the sun? I run on tree-covered trails. The shade keeps me cool and helps hide me from the sun.


The Best Martial Arts for Fitness

People sign up for martial arts lessons for a variety of reasons. Self defense, anger management and being able to say “I Know Kung Fu” like Neo in The Matrix are just a few. Although there is no such thing as a superior martial art, some arts are better than others for accomplishing specific goals. If fitness is your main reason for getting your karate on, these styles can get you where you want to be.


This style comes from Brazil and is as much a form of dance as a style of fighting. Practitioners play in an intense dance circle called a roda and practice gymnastics, static postures and flexibility exercises. In some ways, it’s like doing yoga to music while somebody tries to kick you in the head.

Pros: intense workout, fun atmosphere

Cons: can feel intimidating during the first few classes, not appropriate for people with disabilities or health problems


“Mixed Martial Arts” is what you see in the cage on UFC night, but most MMA training doesn’t involve that kind of fighting. At your typical MMA gym, class will be an intense combination of free weight and bodyweight exercises, calisthenics, light sparring, grappling and hitting various bags or pads. It’s a highly athletic sport with a highly athletic culture.

Pros: bonus stress relief from hitting things, higher-than-average self-defense value

Cons: culture can be overly aggressive at some gyms

Traditional Karate and Tae Kwon Do

The workout your kids do at their weekly karate class is fun, but traditionally taught “hard styles” like karate and tae kwon do condition your body until other bodies will literally break when they slam into it. You can expect isometric exercises, long periods in demanding stances and lots of calisthenics. You’ll train for flexibility and strength using a combination of traditional methods and modern exercise science.

Pros: interesting training methods, focused instruction

Cons: hard to determine traditional programs from less demanding training without a guide

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Remember how hard you worked to reach a point where you could lift your body weight? Now, imagine something that heavy is actively resisting your attempts to lift it, using a combination of dirty tricks and leverage. That’s what BJJ feels like. A 60- to 90-minute class will include a demanding warmup, practicing several moves on a partner your size, then several rounds of “rolling” — light competitive wrestling against a skilled opponent.

Pros: full-body workout like none other, very common — available in most towns

Cons: not everybody is comfortable grappling

Tai Chi

The above choices are for able-bodied, already active people who want to up their fitness games. Tai Chi is a slower art, focused on balance and gently building strength around your joints and stabilizing muscles. If you’re injured, elderly, severely overweight or simply way out of shape, Tai Chi can either get you in good enough shape for something more aggressive or simply help you prevent your condition from deteriorating further.

Pros: gentle, safe, focus on wellness

Cons: not effective for weight loss

Why Do We Need Water?

Everybody knows that they need to drink water, especially while exercising or competing, but few understand the science behind exactly why.

Water makes up most of the human body, including 80 percent of our blood, 90 percent of our lungs and 70 percent of our brain. All told, about 60 percent of our bodies are made out of water. But what is the active role of water in our bodies? Why are doctors, trainers and fitness magazines always telling us to drink more water? How much do we really need?

What it Does

Water is necessary to our every bodily system. In addition to being a major building block of organs and tissues, it keeps things running smoothly.

The liver and kidneys, which both produce large amounts of waste during their filtration work, rely on water to carry that waste away.

Water lubricates your joints, as well as moisturizes your inner ear, eyes, nose and throat.

Because of its major role in the composition of blood, water is responsible for the transportation of nutrients to your cells and muscles. Blood also carries waste away from these areas.

Your internal temperature is also regulated by water. Even when you aren’t aware of it, your body is producing small amounts of sweat through the glands on your skin to control your temperature. This sweat is comprised mostly of water.

Where Does it All Go?

Even when you aren’t working out, or moving much at all, your body loses a surprising amount of water. The average person exhales one cup’s worth of water vapors every day, plus another six cups lost to urine and bowel movements.

Then, of course, there is the water you sweat out. The average person excretes about four cups of water per hour during high-intensity exercise, according to researchers at the University of New Mexico. This number could change, however, based on fitness level, health conditions, age and surrounding weather.

How Much is Enough?

If you lose, on average, seven cups of water per day before you even start to sweat, you need to replenish at least that much. Remember the old adage to drink at least eight cups of water a day? It’s solid advice.

Depending on your diet, this could even give you slightly more water than you need. Most people receive about 20 percent of their daily hydration needs from their food, according to the Mayo Clinic. But a little bit of extra water won’t do any harm.

If you’re exercising, you will need to compensate for the water lost from sweat. For a typical workout, lasting about 30 minutes, about two cups of extra water should be enough. During longer, more intense workouts, you’ll need to adjust your water intake and possibly use sports drinks to replenish electrolytes.

It is possible, however, to drink too much water. Athletes are particularly at risk since they tend to drink large amounts of water or sports drinks to ward off dehydration. The excess fluid in your body can create dangerously low sodium levels. This condition, called hyponatremia, can cause seizures, confusion or even coma.

Again, there are certain health conditions that will require you to drink more water. If you frequently feel thirsty, despite drinking what should be an adequate amount of water, consult your doctor.

Do you have tips on staying hydrated? Please share them in the comments.


8 Vital Injury-Prevention Practices for Your Workouts

If you get hurt working out, you have to quit exercising for a while. Although it’s true that you should expect some “burn” or discomfort during your workout, real pain is a warning sign that you’re doing something wrong. To keep doing right, observe these 8 injury-prevention tricks from the pros:

1. Know the Danger Zones

Mayo Clinic resources split exercise injuries by cause. Training errors are injury-causing mistakes that happen because you’re training too aggressively. Technique errors are hazardous problems with your form. A session with a personal trainer can help you spot and avoid both types of errors.

2. Warm Up

Exercising without warming up is like stretching a cold rubber band, says “Get Fit Guy” Ben Greenfield. Instead, warm up with some light cardio or simply do some preliminary sets at very low weights to get your body ready to work out. Although stretching is a common warmup in amateur circles, it’s not the best choice. It’s not as good as light cardio for injury prevention, and stretching for flexibility is best done at the end of your workout.

3. Periodically Change Workouts

Changing your workout every six to eight weeks accomplishes two important safety goals. It helps avoid repetitive stress injuries by shifting the focus of your workout. It also avoids the risk of training a specific muscle group so much that surrounding, unworked muscles can’t handle the load.

4. Dress Right

This injury prevention tip happens before your workout even starts. If working with machines, avoid loose clothes and clothes with straps. If jogging, wear good shoes with comfortable socks to avoid blisters. Exercise outside requires clothing appropriate for the weather. Ask your personal trainer or gym staff if you have any questions about the right ensemble for your workout.

5. Set Reasonable Goals

It’s easy to get excited and aggressive during the first months of a workout routine, which often means going too hard, too soon. Martial arts teacher Tom Callos recommends setting low short-term goals to ease into your regimen. Gradually increase those goals over the long haul for impressive overall gains.

6. Check Your Equipment

Workout equipment is only safe if properly calibrated and checked for problems. Before you begin any workout, scan the device for damage. Confirm that settings like the seat height and angle of lift are appropriate for your body. If you’re not certain, check with gym staff.

7. Hydrate Early and Often 

If your muscles are even mildly dehydrated, they’re more susceptible to cramps, pulls and tears. Moderate dehydration can affect your judgment and cause dizziness. Drink before your workout and sip during. Remember: if you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.

8.  Protect Your Back

Back injuries are among the easiest to get while exercising, among the most debilitating while you have them and among the hardest to recover from. According to resources at, most back injures are due to improper form while exercising. The best form for protecting your back varies by exercise, but as a general rule keep your back straight and aligned. Move using your back muscles only if an exercise specifically requires it. Otherwise, use your legs and hips.


How to Eliminate IT Band Pain

Ask Coach Jenny

Q: I’m struggling with ITB pain on the side of my knee.  Do you have any exercises that are helpful for this?  Thanks, Emily

A: I’m sorry to hear about your ITB issue Emily, but there are several exercises that can help. Before I get to them, let’s talk about what the ITB is and does…

The ITB (Iliotibial Band) tightness is a common running injury among all levels of runners. The ITB is a band of tissue that runs from the gluteus down to the outside of the lower leg just beneath the knee. Its main role is to extend the leg and stabilize the leg while you run.

It is important to mention that the key to healing is to identify what may be causing the condition to begin with. For instance, bumping up your mileage or intensity too much too soon is one of the greatest reasons for developing ITB. Also, changing to new shoes, running on a cambered road (slanted) and having weak core muscles and muscle imbalances can cause this pain. Part of your ITB recovery plan should include an inventory of your training and other variables to allow your body to heal without aggravating it and prevent it from happening again in the future.

In many cases, making changes to your regimen, weaving in cross-training with low impact activities (elliptical), and focusing on strength and flexibility can resolve the ITB issue. If it lingers for more than a few weeks, it is time to get a proper diagnosis from your doctor.

Here are three exercises to improve strength and mobility.


ITB Foam Roll – [Excerpt from Running For Mortals]

This exercise is similar to rolling out cookie dough or pie crust. Lie on your side and position the foam roll under your hip. Put the top foot and hands on the floor for stability. Use your arms to slowly roll your body over the foam from just below the hip to just above the knee. It’s a little like a “Search and Rescue” mission. When you find a knot, stop, hold and breathe. Try to stay on the knot for 15-20 seconds until it releases. Walk your way in reverse and repeat 10 times.

It may feel very uncomfortable at first and maybe even painful. If it is so painful you can’t lie on the spot, try to get as close to the spot and work into that area. Little by little, the foam roller will help release the knot as well as the pain. Perform this exercise before or after your run or workout.


Bridge with Ball – [Excerpt from Running For Mortals]

Lie on your back with your hands by your sides on the floor and a playground ball or rolled up towel or foam roll between your knees.

Using your gluteal muscles (buttocks), squeeze and lift your hips off the floor until you make a diagonal line from your knees to your hips and shoulders. Only the shoulders and feet are on the floor. While lifting, press the knees in toward the ball and contract your buttocks muscles, squeezing in an up and in motion. This will activate the gluteal and adductor (inner thigh) muscle groups. Pause for a few seconds and lower your hips back to the floor continuing to press in to the ball and repeat. Draw your naval into your spine and focus on two motions, pressing into the ball or towel and squeezing up toward the ceiling.


When this gets easy, progress and make it more challenging by lowering to a few inches off the floor and repeat. Even harder – put your arms on your stomach while you perform the exercise, or try the exercise with one leg.


Single Leg Stance – Hip Huggers

The single leg balance activates and strengthens your stabilizing muscles from your feet and ankles all the way up to your hips and improves your balance, too! If you sit all day like most of us do, your gluteal muscles that stabilize as you run stride for stride are deactivated. When these muscles atrophy (decrease in strength and stability) they no longer engage and support your leg and hip as your foot lands on the ground and can cause friction inflammation in your knee and hip.

Stand up with your feet hip width apart. Keep your arms out to your sides for balance. Lift your left leg a few inches off the floor and hold for 30-60 seconds. Engage your hip muscles to create a long, neutral line up your body.

Let your hip on the planted leg side relax out to the side and then tighten and contract it to align it under your shoulders. Try this in front of a mirror and you’ll see your hip go out of alignment and as you contract the hip your body will realign as pictured above.

Repeat for 30-60 seconds on each side or until fatigued, approximately two to three sets. You will feel the muscles in your foot, ankle and hip fatiguing in seconds! This is a great exercise you can do anywhere – even in line at the grocery store!

When this is easy, progress to performing the exercise without wearing shoes.

When that gets easy, stand barefoot on a towel, pillow or pad to further challenge the muscles and balance.

By performing these three exercises daily, your ITB pain should diminish or disappear, as well as improve strength and mobility for future runs.

Do you have a question for Coach Jenny? Submit your question here.

Avoiding Injury While Power Lifting

You don’t have to lift extremely heavy weights to get benefits out of strength training. If you want to start looking like a body builder, though, power lifting is a must. This is the practice of lifting weights heavy enough to put you at failure within four to six repetitions. It’s not for everybody, and those who try it need to take extra care to avoid injury.

Learn Proper Technique

If you do a light lift with poor technique, you risk not getting the best results. When power lifting with bad technique, tiny mistakes in your form can put immense pressure on your joints and major muscles, and you risk getting badly injured.

People new to weightlifting should avoid power lifting for the first year of training to accustom their muscles to the workout and learn the basics of training with weights. Even if you’re an experienced lifter, it’s a good idea to consult with a personal trainer before taking on a power lifting regime. These professionals will help you spot small errors in your form and show you how best to correct them.

Use a Spotter

Power lifting involves putting heavy metal objects above some of the most important parts of your anatomy. Although you might perform a thousand lifts without an issue, something going badly wrong just once can mean serious injury or even death.

A spotter takes position and watches you lift, standing ready to help you hold up the weight if you start having trouble. She can also help you correct your form, or add a little upward pressure while you’re failing on your last reps. Each lift has its own best practices for spotting, which you can learn during the same personal training sessions you used to learn proper lifting form.

Some gyms have self-spotting equipment, like squat cages, that take care of this part of lifting safety without requiring a partner. As with all other aspects of power lifting, you need to learn how to use this gear. Even when it is available, you should lift with a partner whenever possible.

Understand the Safety Equipment

Power lifting challenges the largest muscles of your body, such as your quads, glutes and pectorals. As you become capable of lifting truly heavy weights, it can be rough on the joints and smaller muscles. To help alleviate this stress, you can use a variety of straps, belts and support garments.

Learn how to use any safety equipment you consider using. Worn correctly, they can help you develop to a new level while protecting the weakest parts of your anatomy. Worn wrong, they do nothing — and can even increase your chances of injury. You should check with your doctor before using any safety equipment in your workout, as the pain that indicates you might want the gear could also be a symptom of a more serious problem. For example, a twinge in your knee that a brace can alleviate could be the beginning of a meniscal tear that leg lifts — even with the brace — will only make worse.

Quit Early and Often

Power lifting will “burn,” often more than other lifting workouts you’ve tried. However, if it hurts you should discontinue the workout immediately. When using lighter weights, it’s reasonable to push through a minor ding, but the weights involved with power lifting can escalate those small problems into serious injuries.

The same goes for your power lifting regimen in general. If going above a certain weight causes acute pain, or pain that lasts for days afterward, reduce the weight and increase your reps. Be patient with your progress and focus on good form.