Light Therapy Review

A few months ago I purchased a dawn simulation / light-therapy lamp. Before this, regardless how early I fell sleep, waking up before sunrise would leave me groggy and slow moving for hours. I even tried moving my bedtime up to 8PM but still woke up wanting more sleep!

The theory behind “light-boxes” is that they produce the same frequency of light as the sun, thereby stimulating serotonin production in the brain. Release of serotonin at the start of the day is one of the primary methods by which our body regulates wakefulness and alertness in the morning.

The specific model I purchased is the BlueMax Sunrise System Model 320. I picked this one because it is the only one that has a built in alarm function AND bulbs capable of reaching 10,000 LUX. The alarm function allows the user to set a wake period so that the light grows gradually brighter. The powerful bulbs emit a level of light that is supposed to be effective in treating S.A.D. (Season Affective Disorder).

Below are the pros and cons I have experienced with my specific light-box.

Pros:

  1. I definitely felt more alert in the morning after a mere 15 minutes of exposure to this light.
  2. It is small and durable enough to move from one room to the other. This allowed me to use it while preparing food in the kitchen and then move it to my dining table during breakfast.
  3. This could entirely be placebo but the notion of having a “serotonin-stimulating” tool available helped get me out of bed immediately upon rising.

Cons:

  1. This model cost $165. The price is justified by the company because it is the only light on the market that offers full spectrum bulbs AND an alarm function.
  2. The time and date settings get erased upon unplugging. This may not be a problem if the light-box is only used as an alarm clock in the bedroom. However, I wanted more exposure time before leaving my apartment, which meant I carried it from one room to another, completely negating the clock functions.
  3. Although I have not had any bulbs die in the 2 months I’ve owned this lamp, I have heard that they cannot be changed. This is a major issue considering the price of the light and the fact that it has over a dozen tiny internal bulbs.

Ultimately, I would not recommend this specific model.

A typical “light-therapy” box can be purchased for as little as $50. The clock and alarm function on this model does not justify the $100 price difference. Plus, if you are like me and want to start your day with as much “blue-light” exposure as possible, the clock will have to be reset every night in order to use the alarm setting the following morning.

I would recommend buying a basic light therapy lamp capable of 10,000 LUX. The exposure to this light has definitely helped improve my morning alertness while reducing the time it takes for me to get moving.

Remember, there will never be a substitute for 8 to 9 hours of quality sleep! But, if you are like me and have trouble getting up before the sun rises, an investment in one of these lights may make your mornings a little bit easier.

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Seasonal Affective Disorder

For all of my followers in the northeast United States, it’s that time of the year again!

The sun is rising late and setting early, the sky is cloudy, and the temperature is dropping. All this can contribute to a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.).

S.A.D. affects about 6% of the United States every year. Common symptoms may include oversleeping, low energy, carb cravings, poor focus, social withdrawal, lack of pleasure, and hopelessness.

It is believed that S.A.D. is caused by a lack of sunlight, resulting in a skewed circadian rhythm and lowered serotonin levels.

Fortunately, there are many things one can do to combat symptoms and improve their emotions and outlook.

The first step is to purchase a “lightbox” for light therapy. These emit a much brighter and whiter light than typical lamps. Exposure to this bright light, particularly first thing in the morning, will simulate the sunrise, improving serotonin production and establishing a healthy circadian rhythm.

I am in the process of purchasing such a light source and will provide a review of my personal experience with this protocol.

The second recommendation is to stay active. Find 30 to 60 minutes every day for exercise. Exercise is known to improve mood by providing a sense of success as well as releasing endorphins in the brain.

The last recommendation I can make is to eat healthy. This means starting your day with a large serving of protein and ending your day with a moderate serving of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes or fruits. Adequate protein in the morning, and throughout the day, will provide the body and brain with amino acids necessary for healthy cognitive function and stable emotions. Carbs at night will help induce sleep and up-regulate serotonin production. Eat fewer carbs throughout the day to avoid blood sugar crashes, causing lethargy and furthering negative emotions.

Many people find success with certain supplements. I personally have tried 5-HTP (a serotonin precursor), GABA (a dopamine precursor), and melatonin (the brains natural sleep chemical). Thus far, the melatonin seems to be the most effective, but only at regulating proper sleep-wake cycles. I noticed no results from any other supplement, regardless of timing or dose.

I do increase my supplemental Vitamin D in the winter from 2,000 to 5,000 or 10,000 a day. I don’t notice a direct result from this but I’m lucky if I get 5 minutes of direct sunlight a day when the temperature drops below freezing. Sunlight is our only significant source of vitamin D, and low levels have been linked to depression as well as many physical conditions.

Finally, there is always the option of medications. If feelings of hopelessness or despair become strong enough, visit a doctor to discuss further options.

I will post a follow up after I experiment with light therapy / dawn simulation for a few weeks. Try these tactics and let me know if you have some of your own!

SAD

How to lift without “Getting Bulky”

paulromasco-com

 

My personal goals involve increasing muscle mass, reducing body fat, and performing heavy barbell lifts.

However, the majority of my clients do not share these goals. Most of my clients want to lose weight, regain function, improve posture, and reverse disease.

In fact, one of the most frequent concerns I hear from those trying to get in shape is that they “don’t want to get big muscles”.

For that reason, I’m going to discuss what causes muscle growth, and how you can avoid getting bulky muscles while still leaning out and improving performance.

The technical term for developing muscle size is “muscular hypertrophy”. Hypertrophy is merely the process of tissues increasing in volume. And the form of muscular hypertrophy that results in the largest muscular gains is “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy”.

Strictly speaking, 8 to 12 repetitions with a moderate weight is the protocol for hypertrophy training. However, intensity and volume are the real deciding factors.

Intensity is accomplished by working until the muscles can no longer perform the exercise properly, known as “failure”, and moving quickly between sets.

Volume is an equation of sets, reps, and weight. This means that 2 sets of 20 repetitions

Olympics_2012_Women's_75kg_Weightlifting.jpg

Female Olympian in the 165 lb. weight class. Does SHE look bulky?

with 5 pounds will result in more growth stimulus than 3 sets of 1 repetition with 50 pounds.

I personally perform an exercise for 4 sets of 15 repetitions if I am trying to increase muscle size. Almost any load can cause significant growth when performed for 15 slow and focused repetitions.

I bring up the topic of intensity to address those that avoid lifting heavy weights because they don’t want to bulk up. The classic bodybuilder approach of 8 to 12 repetitions means that “heavy weights” (relative to the individuals strength) cannot be used.

BulkyThe weights that bodybuilders handle may look heavy but this is merely because they are very strong and have been lifting, with regular improvement, for a long time. It may look like a bench press with two 75-pound dumbbells looks heavy, but if the individual is doing it for 8 or more reps, they could handle over 100-pound dumbbells for fewer reps.

Contrarily, lifting a massively heavy weight for fewer than 5 repetitions will actually train the mind more than the muscles. Yes, the body is getting a great workout, but lifting a maximum load for 1, 2, or 3 repetitions results in more neurological adaptations than muscular growth.

So, if any rep range can stimulate muscle growth, and 8 to 12 reps with a moderately-heavy weight is the most promising to grow muscles, what can you do to avoid “bulking up”?

  • Always feel like you could do 2 to 5 more repetitions with perfect form. The moment you go to failure, and technique breaks down, you are causing muscular damage that will result in the muscle growing larger during recovery.
  • Also, take the time you need to rest between sets. Many bodybuilder programs recommend timed recoveries under 60 seconds, sometimes as low as 15 seconds. Starting your next set before the muscles are ready is a surefire way to stimulate muscle growth.
  • Finally, don’t consume excess calories! One of the main goals of exercising is to increase lean body mass, but, if you don’t want your muscles to grow considerably larger, eat at, or even below, maintenance so your body replaces fat with lean mass.

One last point worth making is regarding “toning”. The same people that say they don’t want to “grow muscles” say that they “only want to tone”. Believe it or not, tone means muscle! There is no way to make fat or skin look “toned”. The definition or tone visible on a fit persons arms, legs, or torso, is actually their muscle.

This doesn’t mean that you have to train like a bodybuilder and put on 50 pounds of muscle to looked toned… but replacing body fat with lean body mass (also known as muscle) is necessary to achieve a fit physique.

The world of fitness, nutrition, and health is filled with mixed messages, preconceived notions, and bogus ideas. But please don’t give any mind to the false claims that lifting weights and increasing strength will make you bulky!

If you work within your limits, have a program structured to your goals, and don’t eat to excess, you will achieve a healthy and proportionate figure.

And as always, if you would like professional guidance, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at paulromasco@hotmail.com !

 

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Recovery Weeks

Wow! It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. Sorry, I was on vacation visiting family throughout New England, and then snowboarding in Stowe, Vermont!

Had a few indulgences, definitely didn’t get as much sleep as normal, and didn’t get into the gym as much as I liked…but heck, it’s only 2 weeks out of the year. And believe me, after those 2 weeks, I couldn’t be happier to get back to pursuing this healthy lifestyle I love so much!

This week, I figured I’d talk about a fitness topic that is overlooked far too often – the importance of a regular, planned recovery week.

No matter what your focus is (fat loss, muscle or strength gain, improved endurance, etc) you can’t train at the same intensity week after week without serious damage to your body and even your mind!

There are many different ways to structure a recovery week. Some people take an entire week off while others just drop the volume of their workouts.

Since my main focus is increasing my strength using heavy powerlifts (squat, bench press, deadlift)  I take what I would call a “deload week” every 5th week. During this week, I drop all my weights or repetitions down so I am only doing about 50% of my normal workload.

I find that, still coming to the gym and going through the motions, but not struggling or pushing too hard, keeps me primed for the following week when I return to my normal intensity level, but offers me a much needed break from the constant stress of trying to handle new, heavier weights.

Even if you aren’t training by lifting heavy, your joints, connective tissues, bones, and muscles are being used in a way that is not typical in everyday life. It’s this imposed demand, and recovery from the demand, that causes the body to improve, getting stronger, faster, or fitter.

The part that most people overlook is the mental aspect of training. One thing I tell all my new clients is that the first 8-12 weeks of a new strength-training routine is where they’ll make the most progress. This isn’t due to increased muscle size but rather a neurological adaptation that improves how the body recruits and fires muscle fibers.

It’s this same neuromuscular connection that fatigues the central nervous system during exercise. There are even anecdotal reports of athletes becoming physically ill the night before squatting, or overtraining with another form of exercise.

For this reason, I recommend everyone take a recovery week every 4 to 12 weeks. The exact frequency, and what to do during this off week, is totally up to the individual, their program, and their goals.

If you are training for general fitness, making slow and steady progress but never pushing too hard to set personal records, working out at a moderate intensity 2 to 5 days a week, a recovery week every 8 weeks or so is perfectly sufficient. If you are lifting very heavy, training the muscles to failure, or constantly trying to beat your previous records, a recovery week every 4 weeks or so may be more useful.

The best thing I’ve done for my training, long-term, was to include a recovery week every 8 weeks. Then, once I started powerlifting a few years ago, I increased the frequency of that recovery week to every 5th week.  As an individual with serious lifting goals, it can be tough to force myself to not lift heavy week in and week out…but I know, as soon as I return the next week, the recovery was worth it.

So give it a try! Maybe time your recovery week with a trip you may be taking, or take a short recovery next time you come down with a cold, or just plan a regular week as a light week. I promise the benefits for your body and mind will be worthwhile.