Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Very Scary Reminder of Why Healthy Lifestyle is Important

I was pretty irritated to see my sister’s name pop up on my caller ID when I heard my phone go off at eight o'clock Monday morning.  I answered anyway.  Her voice was trembling and frantic: “Vanessa, I’m at the hospital with mom.  Dad’s in trouble.  Call everyone.  Get here as fast as you can.  Call Kalin!  Get her home from Philly now!  This is serious!”  Not having any idea what was happening, I jumped out of bed and started calling each of my four other sisters.  Moments later we were all crying in the emergency department.  My dad was being
rushed into surgery.  He had suffered a severe hemorrhagic stroke and was experiencing heavy bleeding in his brain.

A hemorrhagic stroke usually occurs when a weakened blood vessel in the brain bursts resulting in blood accumulating in the brain.  This happened in my dad primarily because of his long-standing high blood pressure.  That morning a weakened vessel ruptured under the high pressure, allowing blood to escape into the brain tissue.  Here is a more detailed visual to understand exactly what happens.  High blood pressure is one of the many health issues that we hear all over the media.  As a health coach, I regularly warn people of these risks. Yet, despite this issue being ever present in my life and studies, it has been difficult to fully comprehend the real devastation it causes.  

My dad in his younger days
A according to the CDC, high blood pressure affects 31% of American adults, a staggering figure that is likely a gross underestimate because many people are walking around undiagnosed.  Diet, sleep, stress and alcohol have massive implications on whether or not your blood pressure is within a healthy range.  Many people’s lives have created the perfect storm.  My dad is a successful lawyer.  This means 12+ hour days at the office followed by sleepless nights preparing for trials, unhealthy eating, and a few drinks per week to “take the edge off”.  This scenario probably sounds familiar.  My dad's lifestyle has become not only the norm for a huge population in our country and increasingly around the world, but almost essential for succeeding in our society.  We have cultivated this as a society through our need for a fast-paced, success driven and convenience fueled world.  No one has time to prepare food, practice meditation, or exercise.  As my dad said yesterday while heavily sedated and barely alive: “well...this is really inconvenient.”

During a conversation I had with my dad several months ago, I said “Dad, I’m really worried about your high blood pressure.  We need to do something about it.”  He responded, “Why are you just now concerned?  I’ve had high blood pressure since 1998.  I’m on medication for it, and my numbers are normal.”  What my dad didn’t understand was that just because the medication was controlling the blood pressure day to day, it wasn’t fixing the underlying reasons that it was high in the first place.  High blood pressure is one of your body’s ways of communicating to you that something isn’t right.  Your heart can’t call your brain on the phone and say: “Stress is too high, diet is a mess, and you’re not sleeping enough, HELP ME!”  You can only mask it with medication for so long.  Eventually, your body will shut you down and force you to rest...often permanently.

By no means do I mean to vilify my dad.  I love him, and I’ll be here to support him 100%. Although my dad’s physician had the right intention when he informed my dad that he needed to change his lifestyle, advice like this is simply not helpful enough to anyone who has determined that they're too busy to make meaningful change to their lifestyle.  In fact, he is too busy to take on reading and dissecting which nutrition information is accurate and relevant or to teach himself how to cook new foods.  It is overwhelming to know that you have to make such a huge change to your life.  What information is accurate and what applies to you?  The thought of it all becomes so overwhelming and confusing that it does seem impossible, and most of us simply don’t have time to conquer the impossible on our own.  As busy and driven people, we know that we have health issues that need addressed, but we feel good enough today to keep doing what we’ve been doing. One morning though, you might wake up and realize that you've pushed it off one day too long.

My dad a few months ago at my sister's graduation
My reason for writing this piece is not to tell you how to control your blood pressure.  It’s rather meant to urge you to start controlling all of the health issues that you know deep down are the real priority but which you can’t seem to find a way to prioritize.  You cannot outrun, mask, or ignore these problems.  A friend of my dad’s stopped by to visit him today: a 59- year-old lawyer with “borderline high blood pressure” himself. When I explained to him what was happening with my dad, his face betrayed his calm demeanor.  He was scared.  He asked me tons of questions about what it means, the prognosis, how to fix it, was it genetic?  I advised him that though genetics may load the gun, your environment and choices really pull the trigger. I assured him that it’s controllable through diet, stress management, sleep and exercise and that change happens quickly, but it must become priority number one. 

Hopefully my dad’s experience will be enough to really show him just how important this is.  It has definitely reminded me just how important the work we do at Sweat and Butter really is. Each of our newsletters touches on one of these issues: sleep, stress, food and movement, and each is filled with great information on how to improve them.  Do one thing differently today: instead of saying to yourself “That was a great article. I’ll have to remember that”, I urge you to do it now!  If you can’t do it alone, we can hook you up with a health coach. Our number one priority is to prevent as many people as possible from ending up like my dad and the hundreds of thousands of Americans every year who waited just one day too long.

Vanessa Alberts is a co-founder and health coach at Sweat and Butter. She received her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and holds a master's degree in Health Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University. She coaches clients to optimize their health and happiness through nutrition and personal evaluation. She can be reached at 

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Take it from me: money isn't everything

I met Greg Lukas when he serendipitously waltzed into Crossfit Pittsburgh with his lovely lady Natasha.  I connected with Greg's energy immediately, and his unique story and outlook on life inspired me to dig a little deeper.  Here's what I found out...

First things first...tell these lovely people what you do for a living.

I build people. It sounds funny, but that is ultimately what I do.  I build teams around the strengths and talents of those people I work with.  It’s a “human element” job really. Specifically, I currently work for The Medicines Company, which is headquartered in Parsippany NJ.  It’s a small bio-tech company dedicated to healthcare solutions in acute care hospitals globally.  I started with them
just as they formed their commercial structure about 12 years ago.  Currently, I am responsible for the performance and development of the commercial operations team in the northeast.  Sounds like you were a man with a plan.
Lots of people have asked me what path I took to get where I am.  And the answer is very simple: I didn’t have a path.  At all.  Zero. No plan what so ever.  I like to say that “I bounced off the walls of life and ended up here”.  I’m sure that is disconcerting for some people and the go-getters will say I’m a fool or at best lucky to have made it this far. That’s ok with me. 

I have learned that nothing replaces hard work. Nothing.  If you want to be successful, you must be willing to work.  That’s it.  You don’t need to have a dream job In fact, you won’t have one at first, and you may never have what you think is a dream job.  You don’t have to have a plan.  Just get in the ‘game’ and work hard.  If you are going to work at a car wash, be the best.  Do extra.  Be the difference.  It doesn’t matter what you do, but do it with passion, pride, and hard work… you’ll be successful.

You travel a lot.  How do you manage to stay in shape on the road? 

I travel WOD (workout of the day) in the sport of Crossfit.  I have been an athlete for most of my life and realized in my late 30’s that “sports” that peaked my interest and challenged me physically were harder to find.  Crossfit answered that need.  At first it was difficult to get involved because I was only training a few times a month, and Crossfit demands more time to really be effective.  So I was talked into trying to drop in to different Crossfit gyms (boxes) while I traveled during the week.  
I dropped into Brazen Athletics, which is just outside Parsippany NJ, and I was hooked.  I was 41 years old and had found an entire community that understood my passion for competition and wanted to see me get better. In 2012 I set a personal goal of getting to 100 different Crossfit boxes and ended up turning it into a book project by spring of that year. Along the way a few magazines picked up on the story and wrote some articles on my project and soon after I was dubbed the “Crossfit Traveler”.  Now the name has stuck and the project has extended to photographing all types of Crossfit athletes.  I currently get in about 2-3 “travel WODs” each week.   

Tell me more about the book.

The book idea is going slow I’m not a natural writer, so getting my thoughts down on paper is difficult.  I've had so many great experiences over the last year and a half that it’s hard to string them together.  I think that I will focus mostly on the people I’ve met and the photos I’ve taken.  That will hopefully capture my message.  Between the unlikely start to Rob Orlando’s Crossfit Strongman story, or the rise of Syn Martinez’s Afrobrutality apparel line out of Crossfit Harlem, or the growth of vendors now drawn to the market, there are so many changes and so many great individuals to talk about…now just to get pen to paper.

Do you have any tricks for eating healthy on the road?  

So… truth be told, I don't eat Paleo (the popular Crossfit diet), and I don’t get too crazy with my diet.  The good news is that I eat relatively healthy anyways.  I don’t have a terrible sweet tooth, I don’t crave fried foods, and I do attempt to take in a lot of protein and green leafy veggies.  The best advice I can give for eating healthy when traveling is to carry healthy protein bars or snacks like nuts, trail mix, etc. to hold you over until you can get to a solid meal.  Luckily for me, my job requires lunch and dinner meetings frequently, so I get the chance to eat well most of my days on the road.

What are some commonalities across Crossfit gyms that you've visited? 

It's difficult to explain the depth of the Crossfit culture to someone who hasn’t
L-->R Author, Greg, Tim Talti (trainer @ CFGP),
and Ron Yellin (owner @ CFGP)

experienced it.  Imagine a group of your best friends whom you haven’t seen in several years - let’s say old high school friends.  Now, imagine that you have thousands of them, and they are spread out across the world in different Crossfit boxes.  Each time you walk into a new box you are welcomed and included directly into that “family”.  It’s really like nothing I’ve ever seen or felt before.  I’ve had people take me to dinner, invite to stay at their house, take me out in their city, introduce me to their families, and even drive me 50 miles back to my hotel instead of making me wait for a cab. 

The ‘culture’ of Crossfit is unique and those gyms that get it right build amazing businesses.  In my experience, I have noted several common traits of Crossfitters:
- There are no egos (just try to walk into a box and think you are going to be the fittest on earth…ha!). 
- People want to include you and want you to improve. 
- They are friendly and giving of their time, advice, ear, etc.

What's your definition of success and how has it changed over time?

This is an awesome question!  What is success?  The way I see it we’ve been duped a little.  I grew up in a slightly below middle class family with a mom who insisted on a strong educational foundation.  We moved to a small town in Connecticut where I feel I grew up like the majority of other kids in America.  

I want to spill the beans on something...We are groomed to reach a false end.  It starts with a strong push to excel in school so we have good grades.  Good grades gets us into a good college.  We work your asses off in college because we are going to need to find a good job. You get a good job and bust your hump so you can make good money.  Then you work for a promotion so we can afford a house, and then 2 cars, and then a boat, and then vacations… and somewhere in there we throw in a spouse and the list goes on and on until, one day, after we are there, we wake up and realize that all the stress and sacrifice to get the “American dream” left us without a climax.

Now this all sounds pessimistic, I know.  But let me ask you:  How much is enough?  Ask yourself, at what point would you no longer worry about money? $500k a year? $1m a year?, what’s the number (and everyone has one)? Let’s just get crazy and say I were to guarantee you $50 million a year for life.  Now…what do you want to do?!?!?  And if you say something remotely close to what you are currently doing, then I believe you are on the path to success.  I grew up thinking that a good job, a house, and the ‘toys’, etc. equaled success. Essentially my accumulation of money equaled success.  I can promise you it doesn't work lik that.  I make more money than I ever thought I could.  I have all the toys I could ask for (boat, jet skis, golf cart, etc.) and my house is awesome, but I don’t get any satisfaction from those things.  Feeling ‘successful’ for me is now centered around giving.  And the only role for money is if I can find a worthy cause or person that I can give it away to.  Crossfit has such a strong element of giving back that it is a perfect outlet for me to really explore being ‘successful’.

I also realize that these things are easy for me to say when I already have a certain level of financial security.  My travel WODs and the book project costs money, and I am fortunate to have the means to pursue those.  For that, I am very grateful.  I am the first to admit there needs to be some basic amount of money included with my definition of being ‘successful’; but I think you will learn pretty quickly that more money is not the answer.  Having purpose and mastery will create self-worth and feeling included in a culture will add context to your life.  Whether it’s your family, your job, or, in my case, Crossfit, having something in your life that challenges your limits and pushes your development is critical to being successful.

Which of Sweat and Butter's five health components do you consider the most important: diet, movement, stress, sleep, or relationships?

All 5 of these components are so critical to someone’s overall health, so it’s tough to select the ‘most important’.  The balance within each of these and between each of these is incredibly important to a healthy life. Without one, the others would surely be affected.  I will speak to my strengths and weaknesses.   I would rate movement and relationships (including community) higher priorities. Relationships can be a huge source of happiness if you surround yourself by trustworthy, caring, and committed individuals.  Happiness is the key to health.  On the other hand, I would say that diet, stress, and sleep are lower priorities, but that is probably why I’m typing this while being hungry, tired, and anxious about my work load…

Addendum: Last question.  What are three books that you recommend to our readers?

Man's Search for Meaning,The Giving Tree, and The Art of Happiness.  Definitely.

You can contact Greg at if you are interested in hearing more about his projects and philosophy on life.

Nathan Riley is a 2014 MD candidate at Temple University School of Medicine.  He writes about food, movement, sleep, relationships, and stress in order to bridge the gap between his patients and evolutionary theory and clinical evidence. You call follow him on Twitter @BeyondtheMD.  He can be reached at  You can also connect with him on Google+.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lions, Tigers, and Chaos...Oh my!

I am currently in Brooklyn for a medical residency interview at Methodist Hospital.  Most people would use the word "chaos" to describe the landscape of New York City.  Our definition of chaos seems suitable for the scenes that I encountered while walking through Brooklyn this week.  There is, indeed, a great deal of noise, people, cars, blinking signs, and odors.   Many cite this chaos as a reason to stay away from big cities.  But is a city truly chaotic?  After all, the city streets of New York are pretty darned organized, don't you think?

In this post, I want to accomplish two things: 
1) convince you that true chaos is found in nature  
2) encourage you to prioritize time in the woods because this chaos is good for you

~ ~ ~
“Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.” 
― Henry Adams, "The Education of Henry Adams"
~ ~ ~

While we tend to characterize New York City as chaotic, it's actually quite organized.  The simplest way to describe this is by looking at right angles.  Our lives revolve around right angles, especially in large cities.  We sleep in rectangular beds.  We drive to and from work
Definitely no right angles here...
(photo courtesy of Aly Owyang)
peering through rectangular windshields.  We work in rectangular buildings at sharply right-angled desks.  Our computer screens, phones, fax machine touch screens, keyboards, keyboard buttons, elevators, briefcases, and business cards hold their shape by four right angles.  If you take the stairs, both your feet and hands are in contact with materials formed to the shape of right angles. Pass under the right angles of any door frame in your house, and you'll find right angles everywhere!

On the other hand, when you turn to nature, you will measure exactly zero 90 degree angles.  This has long been an intellectual point of discussion, but it only occurred to me more recently as potentially having a detrimental influence on our health.  At the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium, Nassim Taleb lectured on the virtues of chaos.  He invited the question: If you preach constantly varied workouts, shouldn't you be eating a constantly varied diet at varied times of the day?  Furthermore, if your body responds well to varied workouts and diets, is it reasonable to assume that you would also respond positively to some variability in your environment?

Nassim Taleb's talk at AHS13 
(audio only until AHS posts the vids online)

As I toured the hospital with this re-framed concept of chaos, it occurred to me how organized it was despite our perception that it was chaotic.  The hustle and bustle of a high-volume hospital can definitely lead to sensory overload, which is why it feels so good to just lay in bed at the end of the day with no interruption.  The calm feels incredible after a long, busy day of delivering babies. Unfortunately, I feel that this sense of calm is limited by our confinement to an organized life of right angles.  

Prospect Park, Brooklyn
After my interview, I left the rectangular hospital and walked the perfectly leveled streets avoiding the cracks separating perfectly square blocks of cement comprising the sidewalk. After ten minutes of walking, I came across Prospect Park.  It's not nearly on scale with its Central counterpart, but it was large enough that I felt removed from the city.  I carefully examined the trees, leaves, blades of grass, flow of the pond water, and movement of the ducks.  This was chaos in its truest sense. The woods seem to have some restorative quality, and I attribute this to chaos.  Your body craves it, and nature delivers.

The confines of our angular environment may be contributing to a background level of stress while simultaneously stifling creativity.  Marc Berman and his colleagues at the University of Michigan have studied this concept of chaos in nature.  They found that cognitive function and focus improved dramatically when individuals were exposed to natural environments, including even pictures of natural elements.  Richard Ryan also found that exposure to nature influenced subjects to be more generous and to seek a stronger connection to others.  (Maybe this is why people in NYC avoid eye contact and small talk.  Seriously...what gives?)  In addition, several interesting studies (1, 2, and 3) have shown that immersion into or even just digital exposure to nature improves healing time post-surgery as well as reduces stress in general.

Richard Ryan, PhD

As I walked through Prospect Park, I touched the trees, crinkled handfuls of leaves, and smelled any flowers that I found.  I spent more time than usual watching the ducks, trying to pick up on a pattern to their movement.  There was no pattern, of course.  They aren't confined to city blocks built at right angles, and they don't see the world through square digital displays.  It was refreshing.
The chaos of Prospect Park

We all know that it feels great to tromp through the woods once in a while, yet we don't put nature higher up on our list of priorities.  I encourage you to take some time once per week to get outside.  Leave your phone at home; you don't need it. Twitter will be there when you get back.  Instead of rushing the dog to the end of the block and back, jump in the car and head to the park.  It's not too cold, you sissy.  Put that ugly scarf that your Aunt Alice bought you for Easter (?) to use.  Splash around in the streams. Crunch of handful of those beautiful leaves and take a big whiff.  Let your mind enjoy just a few minutes of reprieve from the organization of city life.

As for me, this coffee shop feels too angular.  Before it gets dark, I'm heading back to the park for a little chaos...

Nathan Riley is a 2014 MD candidate at Temple University School of Medicine.  He writes about food, movement, sleep, relationships, and stress in order to bridge the gap between his patients and evolutionary theory and clinical evidence. You call follow him on Twitter @BeyondtheMD.  He can be reached at  You can also connect with him on Google+. .

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Mental and Physical Benefits of 90 Minutes of Movement

Movement for fitness means something different to nearly everybody. Some people may be heavy lifting machines that are focused to the max. To others it may be an excuse to interact with others so the workout prep includes blush and lip gloss. Whatever activity you choose to engage in, the most important thing is that it inspires you. We promote movement with our clients not only to lose weight but to manage stress, try something new, exceed your limits, and challenge your comfort zone.

I stumbled upon a hot yoga class at one point, and, despite my preliminary scoff, it left me a bit dazed and confused. I was caught off guard by my discomfort for the heat, the challenge and my lack of flexibility. I decided to give it a few more chances and realized I had a lot of inner soul searching to do. The class was 90 minutes long in a 105-degree room. I struggled with being forced to contain some personal, internalized issues, which were beginning to leak out as the series of poses progressed. The hot yoga classes are quiet. This allowed me to have a full hour and a half to myself during which I could push myself to new limits. It also gave me time to reflect on myself physically and mentally and settle my mind. 

Fast forward a few years, and now my company, Sweat and Butter, has a partnership with South Hills Hot Yoga in Mt. Lebanon, PA. After taking one of their classes I met the owner, Ignacio Filippini. I love meeting people who make a living out of the things they love to do, and Ignacio's enthusiasm is contagious. Not only did I want to thank him for his services but also to learn more about his journey through his practice of movement as it compares to the experience of a novice like me.

Here's what he told me:

“I’m from Argentina. I was brought up in Buenos Aires, and I had a life threatening accident when I was little. I had stuck my foot into a machine, and I almost died from this accident. That really made me into a different person. Even as a little boy I was different from the people around me. It taught me that it was ok to march to the beat of my own drum.

"I also did very well academically. I moved to the States where I had the opportunity to reinvent myself. I had many academic interests, but it wasn’t until high school that I learned I wanted to become a designer, so I studied design at CMU then moved to New York. At the time, I was unhealthy, smoking cigarettes and very stressed by my environment. My friend suggested that I try Bikram yoga to challenge myself. He also thought it might help me quit smoking. So I took a class, and i thought I was going to die! I was on the floor agonizing the whole time. After class I thought 'wow this is so crazy', but I felt so good! I walked home on an endorphin high. I decided right there and then that I would quit smoking, and, since I had an introductory rate, I went every day after work. I really started to notice a change in my whole life. I was a different person. There was a levity that I will never forget.  I really started to notice the benefits after sticking to my practice. I realized I had been neglecting a part of myself that was really important.”

So far so good. I didn’t feel bad after hearing about Ignacio's struggles through his first class, because I found myself to be strangely defeated in the past by the graceful practice. Sometimes it is hard to realize that a seasoned pro traversed the same learning curve as I was cursing through our hot yoga sessions. It is easy for us to place professionals on this untouchable pedestal where they seem to have been born enlightened and gifted with some alien talent that is nearly unachievable to the "common" man. I had to admit…I felt more at ease knowing he suffered. It helps to put into perspective the fact that we all have to start somewhere! Back to Ignacio's story...

“I was lost. 

(Ah yes that’s the stuff...Go on…) 

"New York for me was a weird experience, because i arrived thinking that I owned the world. I got to the city already with a job as a designer in a good company. I was young, and I had this concept of who I wanted to become. When I got there it was a totally different experience. My soul became sad. The city was too expensive, and I could barely survive financially. That’s where I was when I went to yoga for the first time. I was coping with the stress by smoking, and I was totally misaligned in every aspect because I wasn’t living a healthy lifestyle mentally and physically."

Sounds familiar. I have heard similar stories from clients who have their life in order and constantly strive forward with an empty tank. The effects of a good ‘Ah-ha!’ moment are remarkable at times. Hearing about Ignacio’s experience with Bikram yoga and relating it to my personal break through made this conversation feel like more of an even playing field. I realize that diving head-first into a new activity and forcing one’s comfort zone beyond its limits is not for everyone, so I wanted to hear how Ignacio would explain Bikram yoga to a newcomer.

“It is an accessible beginners yoga class meant for everyone. It is a holistic endeavor - not just a workout. Every part of the body is being conditioned and strengthened and opened up in the same sequence at the same time every day. This is very simple stuff that anyone can do, but it's also challenging enough that an experienced practitioner can be pushed to new heights. There’s always somewhere else to go in the posture. 

"I hear a few common hesitations. First, that it’s too hard. This is a misconception. Bikram is accessible to all. It's the challenge of the teacher to help people of different bodies and different abilities. Second, that it’s too hot. This is also a misconception because 105 degrees is hot, but it’s not like a sauna. Your body adjusts very quickly to the different temperature.  Your body is able to do more as you get used to it. Why the heat? It increases flexibility, stimulates circulation, and helps with the aches and pains. People also think they’ll get yelled at. We conduct our classes with a lot of love and compassion. We treat everyone with love, acceptance and respect. We love our students so that they can love themselves.

"I felt a huge transformation in my own practice with Bikram yoga, so I can definitely understand how it can touch people in different ways.  A big part of Bikram is learning to love yourself. Looking at yourself in the mirror for 90 minutes isn’t always easy. Our bodies are ancient machines, and we are living very modern lives that cause immense stress. Your body is so complex yet perfectly simple, and yoga helps it to heal itself.”

Now that the weather is quickly turning grey and cold, I would highly suggest finding some warmth in a hot yoga studio to escape the winter and the chaos of a hectic day. Stay tuned for collaborative workshops hosted by Sweat and Butter and Ignacio at South Hills Hot Yoga where we will highlight the importance of movement and fueling the body with the right food to optimize body functionality.

Stephanie Telep is a co-founder and health coach at Sweat and Butter.  She received her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Duquesne University.  She is inspired to help others make necessary changes in their lives while fostering a positive and healthy path. She can be reached at

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