Coming Full Circle

My last entry was about the Big Sur Marathon Relay, and probably one of the most momentous races in my life. Not only because of the incredible scenery, but because of the experience I had overall running on a team, with my team for charity. It was the only time after finishing 9.5 hilly, canted miles did I wish I could keep running. I envied the excitement and of the full marathoners. I wanted that same sense of accomplishment. Subconsciously, I was planning my first 26.2. I knew it last year, when I was spectating the 2015 Chicago Marathon, that after turning 40 in February of this year, it would be high time for me to finally run the full distance. I was always the person who would talk anyone out of doing a marathon. “It’s bad for your health”, I would say. “There’s no fitness benefit”, I would add. But secretly I knew the jig was up, and if ever I would run a marathon, it had to be in Chicago and for Every Mother Counts.

I secured my charity bib and did not tell a single person until after Ramadan ended in the beginning of July. The marathon lottery came and went and I didn’t say a word. People started their marathon training, and I secretly did as well, but under the guise of “I’m always training”.  I did not want anyone to interfere with my decision, challenge my previous thinking, or comment that Ramadan (the month of fasting) would interfere with marathon training. I told my parents just 2 weeks ago that I was running the marathon after I finished my second 20 mile training run! Slowly and surely I have come out of the closet and am now 10 days away from running this race I never thought I would run. I have incredible support and through family and friends, I’ve raised over $2,100 to help reduce the barriers of maternal mortality, stemming from a lack of access, transportation, supplies and education.

My two sons just had birthdays: 14 and 12. Both of their births had slight complications and running in their honor is the only way for me to run. I connect my steps metaphorically with other women worldwide, who embark on the journey of childbirth, which people tend not to focus on as much. The pomp and circumstance is pregnancy and the baby. But what about those 800 women who die every day in childbirth? And then what about the fact that 90% of those deaths are preventable? So yeah, it’s time for me to put on this jersey and run for those women, so that they too can be around to celebrate their child’s 12th and 14th birthdays.

If you want to help me get to the start line, please contribute to my Crowdrise account here. All your contributions go to great places and make a significant impact, worldwide.

God bless!

Ayesha

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Get Results Quicker

Before I start working with a new client, I take time to inquire about my client’s goals, time commitment, and capabilities.  Saying to me, “I want to lose weight but it doesn’t matter when” is as noncommittal as saying, “Someday I’d like to fly a kite”.  Together we develop SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) goals which I use to create a routine that I (as any personal trainer) dream will be adhered to, impeccably.

I want to highlight that in order to avoid a body plateau, every fitness routine should be varied and incorporate a mix of endurance, strength and power exercises to achieve best results. Endurance training is aerobic training for the long haul. We are talking about the ability to walk for extended periods of time, run middle or long distance, cycle or swim for more than thirty minutes at a time. Having the stamina to keep up with life starts right here. Keep in mind endurance training for sport or performance is different and more rigorous, but practically speaking, endurance training needs to be a part of everyone’s fitness routine to develop a healthy heart in the long term.

Functional movements such as squatting, lifting, lunging and rotating are some simple daily activities that can bring a lot of pain to thousands of people every day. How many times have I heard someone say to me, ‘Oh I can’t squat because I have bad knees’!  However, when these muscle groups are strengthened, you can enable yourself to live a greater quality of life. Consider the grandmother who is strong enough to lift her grandbaby. The ‘one less trip to the car’ to get groceries. We’ve all done that, you load up your arms with grocery bags because no matter what you will NOT be returning for a second trip. So rather than relying upon grocery shopping trips to build muscle, let’s start adding strength training (also referred to as resistance or load training) into your routine. Strength training can be done 2-3 times per week. I recommend splitting your routine with large muscles one day, (chest, full leg, back, shoulders) and small muscles the other day (biceps, triceps, core). Depending on your fitness level, you can modify repetitions and weights, but a general starting point is 2-3 sets and 8-12 reps. Perfect your bodyweight form before you add load. Consult with a personal trainer to ensure your form is correct to prevent injury.

I also incorporate power (anaerobic training), which is the product of strength and speed. Power gives us the ability to bicep curl quickly and with resistance. Muscles love power because they are metabolic – they are working all the time. Muscles like to be stretched. Power is also vertical jumping or lifting very heavy weights quickly. It’s the mojo that enables you to cross a street four lane intersection before the light changes. Power prevents you from falling, or tripping, when you catch yourself quickly.  Power is also a great adrenaline rush.

All of the best exercise in the world is of no value unless it is coupled with clean nutrition. Get 95-110 grams of protein per day, drink half your body weight in ounces of water per day, and eat as fresh and from the source as possible.  By varying your workout routine with elements of cardio, strength, power and rest, you will be on your way to avoiding plateau and developing your body into the best shape for YOU.

 

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The Food Babe Way: A Book Review

By now you’ve probably heard of Vani Hari, aka, the Food Babe, in some way shape or form. If you have followed the recent story on how Subway eventually removed Azodicarbonamide from its bread, then you know of her. She currently has her hands in several other investigations, such as getting Kraft to remove artificial dyes in their macaroni and cheese products, removing BHT from cereals and recently exposing the mind-numbing fact that the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte had neither pumpkin nor spice.

So immediately, given my personal interest in healthy, conscious eating, I took a liking to her. I started following some of her campaigns, and using my background in public health, performed my own research on similar topics. I have made personal (family-wide) campaigns against certain ingredients I now refuse to eat or drink, such as carrageenan – found in many brands of almond milk. (It definitely upsets my stomach and has loosely been associated with colon cancer). Giving that up was a no brainer. I was on the same page as the Food Babe, until I read her book, The Food Baby Way.

Her book guides the average (arguably uninformed) reader through a list of unhealthy chemicals we as society have ‘been duped’ into consuming. She carves out a list of what she calls, ‘The Sickening 15”, and relates many of her own childhood illnesses to this list. Many of the items on the list are very common knowledge, and several are not (dough conditioners). For example, growth hormones in meat, pesticides, BPA in plastics, and of course high fructose corn syrup, just to name a few are always in the media whether the message comes from Coca Cola, plastic water bottle campaigns, or labels on meat. My personal vendetta is against carrageenan, and that’s on her list too. (Thus far, no problems with her philosophy in creating this list). She then takes the reader into her personal 21-day detox. There are so many kinds of detox diets on the market, you could choose a new one every for 52 weeks, and her detox isn’t ground-breaking. I will pause here to insert that as a public health educator and conscious eater, I whole-heartedly do not believe in the concept of a detox or a cleanse. A detox is eliminating your regular foods in lieu of others (most often liquids) at a highly concentrated dosage. The body is not designed to handle drinking 5-6 juices per day for 5-10 days straight. Consider replacing a snack with a fresh juice, but not a meal. Juice fasts are not sustainable and it does not promote healthy habits in my opinion. Thus, when it comes to the Food Babe, I certainly do not agree in calling her prescription a detox; additionally, she makes several claims that I don’t feel are completely warranted. All of my opinions are in the context that I already live by the 80/20 principle (eat clean 80% of the time), therefore I wasn’t too motivated to change my habits despite to her accusatory tone.

Let me now highlight a couple of reasons why I am parting from the Food Babe way. (As always, do your own research, and use your own judgment). The majority of her rules are decent, and as I mentioned earlier I have been following such guidelines for years already. However, here are a few rules that offend me.

Day 3 – Stop drinking with your meals

Stop drinking fluids with meals? She claims that symptoms such as indigestion, heartburn, bloating, fatigue and headaches (to name a few) are likely caused by the habit of drinking fluids with meals. I would argue that the foods she was eating was probably causing those symptoms, as I drink water with my meals every day and have never once experienced this.

Day 4 – Drink and bathe in pure, clean, filtered water

There is not much I can say about this but who feels so entitled that they can afford to bathe in pure, clean, filtered water? Is she not aware that California has been in a drought for four years? Fine – drink clean water, but to profess to the world that one needs to bathe in it becomes preposterous.

Day 20 – Fast 12 hours every day.

This one bothers me the most, because I understand fasting and I believe she is providing mixed messages. She takes the overnight fast from your last meal to the extreme. She suggests, that because you are already sleeping for 8 hours (which not everyone does to begin with), why not add 4 hours and break your fast around 8:30-9am. Stop for a moment and consider the implications this would have in your life. Completely unfeasible in mine, this is nonsense, because the first thing I do when I wake up is eat so that I have energy to exercise. My brain needs that fuel which makes me more productive than I am on days when I haven’t eaten before a workout. She also claims this ‘intermittent fasting’ improves fat burning. Sure, it’s true that intermittent fasting, which is a popular fitness trend to get lean, can help people burn fat. However it is always coupled with a cardio workout to maximize the fat burn. Again, she’s not providing the complete picture.

While the above rules (and the other 18) can be considered well intentioned, they are very short sighted. Not everyone has the time or resources to engage in a 21-day detox of this scale, and what upsets me the most is her authoritative tone claiming amazing life benefits from doing so. She is quick to list out the “Sickening 15” and also list out her favorite foods on her website (does she profit from them?) She also dismisses any room for error in her 21-day detox.

I believe that if you adopt a lifestyle of eating healthy, clean, conscious, or whatever you prefer to call it, you are already on your way to living your best self. Don’t fall prey to diets (ex: Paleo), detoxes or cleanses. Inevitably you will be faced with difficult choices along the way. What do I eat at a party? What do I eat when traveling? What do I eat at a work event? Follow the 80/20 rule and eat healthy 80% of the time and allow yourself the 20% breathing room. You will feel great because you are in control. Diets and cleanses are not wholesome; they are temporary fixes and are unsustainable. Remember, the best plan is the one you keep, and that is a lifestyle.

P.S. Who calls themselves a “Food Babe”?

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Whole Life Challenge – My Review

My women’s running club regularly participates in the 8-week fitness and nutrition game called the Whole Life Challenge (WLC), and one day last December I decided to join the next round which started January 17. I was fully aware of the  golden rules: no sugar no bread for 8 weeks (The Paleo diet in disguise essentially). I am already a clean eater, and daily exercise is no problem for me. So the real challenge would be to confront my sugar addiction. I signed up. My husband, two sons, family and close friends were fully forewarned of the potential mood swings they would have to endure WITH me. Yes – I made sure I had a decent support system to remind myself of my challenge and to help me succeed. On the first day of the challenge I went to a friend’s surprise birthday party. (Probably the first birthday I’ve left without eating cake). I was prepared however; I had a slightly cold banana waiting for me I the car. Leaving it in the car was a mistake but a good one because I ultimately learned that the colder temperature of the banana provides a sweeter return. (Hint: banana ice cream).

So here we go. Eight weeks of no sugar and no bread and day 1 was great. I felt like a champion. End of week one and my family was begging for me to give it up. Turns out I’m not nice when I’m not on simple carbs. Moving forward another week and into half marathon training, I found it hard to subsist on sweet potatoes, all the extra meat I felt forced to eat, and beans. (Off the challenge I would eat meat a few times a week at a maximum). My skin took a beating presumably from all the extra almonds I was consuming. (Almond butter brownies being the biggest pot of gold). I didn’t feel great and about 3 weeks in, near my birthday (which was my predetermined drop out date), I was at an all time low. I made a chocolate mousse from avocado and seeing the green bits invade my chocolate was atrocious. I got into my first ever fender bender. My mood was constantly depressed. I was not myself at all.  I had no energy on the treadmill. I was ready to quit. I proudly quit on my birthday – 4 weeks into the challenge. I scheduled my annual physical and was beyond shocked to learn that my Trigs and HDL were at an all time low. My Trigs were 39!! A low fat diet is around 50. Could it be too low, I wondered? I slowly started to add back bread, enjoy life better, and deal with the sub-5 nutrition score. (Every day the challenge awards you up to 13 points). Adding the bread meant losing the points – I could deal with that! Dramatically my life changed. My athletic performance improved, as did my mood. My family liked me again. I liked myself again, too.
New PR! 1:54
New PR! 1:54

The challenge ended the weekend of my NYC half marathon. I had already checked out of the eating game, and I missed the post-challenge team brunch. So there really wasn’t much ‘closure’ so to speak. But on my end of things, I was so ready to treat myself! I had a great race, set a new half marathon PR, and was jetting off to Paris the night of my race. Mile 12 was when it hit me that I was going to Paris and would be eating croissants and drinking cappuccinos in cafes all day!  It would be the perfect celebration of the end of the Whole Life Challenge.

The Daily
The Daily

It was a whirlwind week and every day in Paris I made it a priority to eat bread, croissants or waffles. I was in gluten heaven. I loved not having to worry about counting anything! I ate so much bread my brothers and sister would just pass the basket to me on the table as soon as it arrived. Did I binge? Probably. But I earned those carbs. I know everyone is wondering if I ever kicked the sugar habit. And I did! No longer feeling vulnerable in front of those bakery chocolate chip cookies. I’m in better control of my sweet cravings, have created a handful of healthier alternatives. I’m excited for what’s next!

Cacao Hemp Smoothie Bowl
Cacao Hemp Smoothie Bowl

A dozen or so people would ask, “why are you doing this challenge? What do you have to gain from it? Why are you only doing the basic level? Why are you trying to lose weight? Did you win?” I participated in this challenge for several reasons. As a personal trainer, I come across many clients interested in many diets. I am not a fan of diets and my experience above is exactly why. A diet implies an end date with are rules and restrictions. There will be binging. There will be falling off the bandwagon. I didn’t lose any weight, but I did shave off some inches. In the game I ended up at 21st place (125 started the challenge, 46 finished) – not bad.  My blood test proved me that excluding sugar and bread might not be what my body as an endurance athlete needs. I found I was motivated by the possibility of earning a perfect score every day which helped me stay away from noncompliant foods. But it also allowed me to explore other means to satisfy my sweet tooth. Dates, banana ice cream and almond butter brownies were my saviors. I even won a recipe challenge! However, this experience was not enough for me to change habits – but serves a purpose for those looking to try new things. (Reminding myself I already follow the 80/20 clean eating rule, so I didn’t have many bad habits to break).

In order to change your nutrition habits to eat better so that you can perform better in life, the change agent has to be intrinsic. It has to be motivated by something greater than our own ego. I am glad I did the challenge, and I am glad I can share this experience with my clients. The most important takeaway for me is that I know where my limits are and what nutrition my body needs to perform at its optimum level. That was the best lesson for me to learn.
*To learn more about this health and fitness game, or to join the next round, head to wholelifechallenge.com
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Kick your sugar habit to the curb!

The Good Life
The Good Life

It is absolutely no secret that I have a sweet tooth. Everyone who knows me knows that about me: #thatsmyjam (Reference to Portlandia). So when clients tell me, “I have a problem, I’m addicted to chocolate”, I completely get it. You run for chocolate.  Welcome to the world of running :) It’s not the sugar I am addicted to as much as the sweet taste I crave after I eat lunch or dinner. And somewhere along the line I’ve trained myself to think I must eat dessert daily, and run it off in the morning. It has become habit, a sense of entitlement. Yet to be controlled or consumed by this Pavlovian behavior can be crippling for some. Like many Muslims, I spent all of July fasting for the month of Ramadan, not eating anything from dawn to dusk. Many joke that we try to compensate for the loss of calories after we break our fast, or even after the month is over, we ‘binge’ so to speak on the calories lost. However this year, I decided to maintain the ‘loss of SWEET calories’ after Ramadan was over and straight into my vacation prep.

I started to cut back slowly. Again, I’m a girl who needs to eat something dessert-ish EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. And, sometimes twice. So to cut back slowly I mean, I’d skip a day here and there. I would replace that craving with more greens, more protein and more water.  I also broke my ‘no sharing’ rule. Taking a bite first, and passing off the rest to a kid or my husband. Honestly that ended up being better than I thought.  I admit: I’m a hoarder of desserts.  Yes I am a walking hypocrite with MPH at the end of my name. We all have our ‘things’, right? Then, I went to Jamaica and my behavior and outlook changed. Ever have island fever? This was the first time (after having been to many, many islands) that I ever felt it. You feel jittery, itchy, bored, all kinds of things you are not supposed to feel when you are in a tropical, Caribbean paradise. But being in Jamaica taught me the value of bringing my life to Z E R O. It is the land of “no problem” and “yah mon, everything’s irie”.

I went straight into vacation after 4 weeks of Ramadan, and 2 weeks of work and teaching fitness classes at my sons’ camp. I needed a vacation away from responsibilities and family time for sure. I brought a book with me, but couldn’t even concentrate on the words because I was so consumed with my daily sugar fix: I wasn’t getting it. There are were ‘bakeries’ I could shop at. Nothing of the sort.

The first couple days were rough, but then it was almost instantaneous, the liberating feeling of not needing any sugar to regulate my mood, or to fulfill the Pavlovian behavior. Instead I waited for the fruit lady to walk by my resort so I could buy my daily stash of fresh coconut, papaya, pineapple and bananas. Fresh fruits (which I have always consumed, no problem) became the answer to my sweet tooth. Every morning as I enjoyed my beachside, carb-heavy breakfast with Jamaican coffee I would smile at how much I didn’t miss process foods in America. Jamaican’s are not obese, they are rounder, but not obese. So now I’m home, post-Jamaica. What am I going to do about it?

  1. Continue to boost my metabolism by adding protein to every meal, continue to drink my meta-D every morning!
  2. SHARE my dessert :) It’s all about balance, right?
  3. Drink half my body weight in ounces of water every day
  4. DON’T BRING THAT STUFF INTO THE HOUSE.
  5. Fruit. Veggies. Fruit. Veggies.

Have you recently done something like this? How did it go?

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Getting Back on Track in 5

We all fall off the fitness wagon. Don’t despair, just get back on.

Perhaps you just finished the blessed month of Ramadan, congratulations! Hopefully you had a great month of fasting and were able to reap all the spiritual and physical benefits of fasting for 30 days. Fasting can certainly be difficult on the body, and whether or not you kept active during the day, here is how you can get yourself back on track.

1. Start your day with apple cider vinegar – use organic, raw and unpasteurized! (Bragg’s)

bragg-apple-cider-vinegar1

  • Boosts your metabolism
  • Neutralizes the pH of your body
  • Improved digestion
  • Improved stamina & energy
  • Decreased restless leg syndrome symptoms with increased potassium
  • How to drink it: mix 1 tbsp with 6-8 oz of water or apple juice.

 

2. Ease back into exercise and strength training.

  • If you are getting back into running and are easily able to run, then great! Otherwise, consider a run walk strategy given that your endurance may have been compromised.
  • Move first thing in the morning. Whether its a quick yoga sequence, 10-15 minutes of jumping jacks, crunches and pushups, or a jog, get moving for 20-30 minutes every day.

3. Drink half your body weight in ounces of water per day. Add fruit slices or mint leaves to jazz it up if needed.

4. Craving carbs? Choose complex carbs. Add protein.

  • Hummus with veggies
  • Apple slices with a nut butter
  • Fruit smoothie with protein powder

5. Eat lean, clean and green! The days of eating late and ‘whatever you want’ are over, so get back into eating a well-balanced meal! I ate bits of superfood greens throughout Ramadan. Each single calorie tab is loaded with 64% protein!

Enter the code "RunAyesha" for 25% off
Enter the code “RunAyesha” for 25% off

If you are interested in purchasing a sample of Energy Bits, head over here.

 

 

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My Interview with the SkinLess Project

The SkinLess Project presents:
Inspirational Woman May 2014: Ayesha Akhtar
An Interview.

I was honored to be the “Inspirational Woman” for the month of May at the SkinLess Project. To hear more about my endeavors, check out the website here.

You are passionate about advocacy for women and young girls, where does this stem from?

In college (Loyola University Chicago) I received a scholarship into a 4 year women’s leadership program. I knew I was some version of a feminist (or a proponent of the advancement of women), but had no idea about the passion the program would ignite in me by the time I graduated. Thereafter, I viewed everything from the lens as an advocate for women and girls. (Check out the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership)

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Sifting through protein powders

Hi all! I am asked frequently on the brand of protein powder I use. I thought I’d take a moment to write up some of my favorites.

I’ll try anything once (after careful consideration of course)! Over the last several years I’ve tried: Vega, Perfect Fit Protein, Drink Svelte, Muscle Milk (ready to drink), and most recently, GnarlyI’m going to outline them for you below, and I’d love to hear your comments or experiences with any of these!

Let’s begin by understanding what you DON’T want in your protein powder. This will help you sift through dozens.  Most of this should be self-explanatory. As always, conduct your own research, particularly on Carrageenan. I am not a fan, and I switched off the varying almond milks (Almond Breeze) that used it because I noticed my stomach always hurt after I would drink it. I normalized that feeling until I did some research on the thickening agent and decided to ditch it for good. Don’t be fooled by natural and organic products either – I’ve found it in Horizon Organic chocolate milk..

I grabbed this great meme from CalNaturale, they make Drink Svelte (read about them below). Continue reading Sifting through protein powders

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The Birthday Workout!

Aquarian
The Aquarian

Year two of the ‘birthday workout’ was today! I turned 38 and after my morning ‘total body’ class, I went to hit the iron at 38 reps each. I love this circuit because it’s ridiculous, it’s hard and it makes you stronger. I did this last year with great satisfaction, challenge and joy. This year was no different! And the fact that this year I am studying to become a personal trainer, this challenge became more meaningful to me in a way.

This is what my trainer friend and I designed for me (the focus was low weight, muscle isolation). Unfortunately the squat bar was being work on so we had to go to plan B. Since Tuesday was a hard leg day, today’s focus was not on heavy weights:

  • 38 reps single leg split squat (no weight)
  • 38 second wall sit
  • 38 reps one-arm dumbbell row, per arm (20lbs)
  • 38 reps lateral pulldowns (80lbs)
  • 38 side-lying leg raises, per side
  • 38 reps adductors
  • 38 reps abductors

I don’t even remember the weight but I remember thinking, no one should ever do 38 reps straight of leg abductors. WHEW!

I worked on my core / some lower abdominal exercises and went back to the one-arm dumbbell row for the encore. I rowed 45lbs each side, which is my current one-rep max.

My Birthday Workout!

Really pleased with myself and excited that I challenged myself to do something different.

Because, what doesn’t challenge you, won’t change you.

And I’m a new woman after today.

I’m 38!

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13.

I’m in a rut. I have writer’s block. I’m feeling very uncreative. I’m running all my miles on the treadmill for crying out loud! It is the dead of winter. We’ve endured and survived a thing called “polar vortex”, and I’m just over it. I’m ready for spring so I can remove things that have been frozen to the ground.  Weeks ago, like everyone else, I had written this gratitude list of 13 *things* I am grateful for this year. I didn’t feel like posting it, but I do think looking back allows me to look forward and plan out my year. I don’t dwell on the past, but rather consider life events and experiences as artifacts of my life. Every event had a proper place, given its context.  And in true Aquarian style, I’m posting it now, on my own terms. And after having thought about it a little more. 

My parents, my husband of 15 years, my two sons and my siblings


My new house, which I adore curating into our beloved home


My talent, which enables me to be successful in my career


Watching Derrick Rose play at the United Center


Traveling, whether with friends, family or for work


Running a sub-2hr half marathon


Getting physically stronger, lifting heavier weights, and boxing more

Writing MY narrative – check out www.MuslimahMontage.com

Amazing locally roasted coffee – Every morning I make myself a latte with the freshest locally roasted beans. Seriously, Chicago coffee has some attitude that rivals my favorites from the Bay Area and NYC. If you’re looking, try dark / espresso roasts from Big Shoulders and Halfwit Coffee Roasters – that stuff will go right through you.

My girlfriends

My health – part of the “Five before Five” sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Take benefit of five before five:
your youth before your old age,
your health before your sickness,
your wealth before your poverty,
your free-time before your preoccupation,
and your life before your death.”

and finally,
Being able to do it all over again in 2014. (God willing)

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