Rx for Fitness

We know the gym is the place to “get fit,” but that can mean different things to different people. Some of us want to bulk up, some of us want to slim down, some of us want to get strong, and some of us want to be fast. So what exactly should we be doing to meet our goals (weights? cardio?)? And how (lots of reps? lots of weights? both?)? We consulted several local trainers and nutritionists to discern the best diet and exercise programs to achieve various goals. As you’ll see, the directions your diet and workout should take all depend on your priorities.

1. Goal: Increase Bone Density

Why it’s important: According to Matthew Marucci, a trainer, physical therapist, and co-owner at Millwood-based New Castle Physical Therapy & Personal Training, bone density—which refers to the mineral density of the bone—keeps your bones resilient against falls and compressive forces. It also helps prevent osteopenia (lower than normal bone density) and, eventually, osteoporosis.

Trainer Advice: Do weight-bearing exercises, which put stress on bones, e.g., jog, play tennis, dance, and even use the elliptical machine. (Riding a stationary bike or swimming may make your heart stronger, but won’t help strengthen your bones.) To strengthen bones in your hips and spine, Marucci recommends “sit-to-stand” (three sets of 15 reps): stand straight, then bend your knees and lower yourself as though sitting in a chair. Keep your spine straight and chest up, and don’t bring your knees forward (you should see your toes). For bones in your shoulders and wrists, do wall pushups (three sets of 10 to 15 reps): stand four feet from a wall (at about 45 degrees), with your hands at shoulder height and wider than shoulder width. For the spine: do a standing row (requires rubber tubing easily found at Target): tie tubing around a door knob or the leg of a table and stand with your chest up and one foot in front of the other. Keeping the arms slanted downward, bring your arms in toward your chest—but keep them at your sides. The key is gently squeezing your shoulder blades together.

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Nutritionist Advice: Calcium is king, says registered dietician Geri Brewster of Mount Kisco. Since females achieve peak density at age 18 and males at 21, preventing loss of bone mass is paramount—and vitamin D is a key factor (ask your doctor to test your levels). To optimize and maintain density, “keep a more alkaline diet,” says Brewster, “one that is very rich in vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds—and minimize sugar and excess animal products.” Also, get about 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure per day; the sun increases the body’s ability to manufacture vitamin D, which helps it absorb calcium. Brewster recommends taking calcium and vitamin D supplements. In addition, minimize caffeine and carbonated beverages, which, Brewster says, deplete calcium from your bones.

2. Goal: Increase Flexibility

Why it’s important: Without flexibility, your body will grow old before its time, warns Peter Belmar, a Westchester-based Muay Thai coach who has worked in the fitness industry for 26 years. “Also, if you play a sport and don’t stretch, your muscles will not work at their maximum capacity, and you stand a greater chance of injuring yourself,” he says, adding that yoga is excellent for flexibility.

Trainer Advice: Belmar suggests targeting your arms, back, and legs. For active people, he recommends stretching twice a day (morning and night), for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and gradually pushing toward more difficult stretches as flexibility increases. For legs, sit on the floor with your left leg straight in front, and the right leg curled in so that the bottom of that foot rests against the left inner thigh. Reach for your toes, while trying to bring the forehead to make contact with the knee (switch legs and repeat). As this becomes comfortable, move to level two: stand on your right leg, put your left leg on a chair (roughly at hip level), and reach for your toes while bringing your forehead as close to the knees as possible (repeat for other side). For level three, have someone squat in front of you, and after placing your left leg on his or her shoulder, the other person should slowly rise from squatting position, going as high up as possible, until you feel strained (repeat for other leg).
For arms, hold your arm straight up beside your ear, and bend at the elbow so your palm is resting on your shoulder blade. Use your right hand to pull your left elbow behind your head, and hold (repeat for other arm). To kick it up a notch, place your left arm in the same starting position, but instead, reach behind your back with your right arm, and grabbing hold of your left hand, pull down with your right hand.
For the back, sit on the floor with your feet wide apart and stretch as far forward as possible, holding for 25 to 30 seconds. When this becomes comfortable, sit in the same position and get a partner to sit facing you, with his or her legs between yours. Your partner should then hold your hands and pull you forward, farther than would be possible on your own.

Nutritionist Advice: To stay flexible, don’t eat a lot of sugar, says Mount Kisco-based nutrition consultant Dina Khader; too much sugar in the diet causes glycation, she says, which can stiffen the joints. “Do take trace minerals,” she says—minerals we need in very small amounts, naturally occurring in the soil, rocks, and water—such as silicon, manganese, zinc, boron, and strontium, which she maintains are all involved in joint and cartilage health. When taking supplements, Khader says, “liquid form is preferable to tablets because the absorption is so much better.” The biggest enemies? Alcohol, soda, and too much coffee.

3. Goal: Lose Weight

Why it’s important: Generally, being overweight is bad news for your health; it can lead to heart disease, respiratory problems, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, high blood pressure, and joint problems, among other health risks.

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Trainer Advice: Burning 3,500 calories is the equivalent of shedding one pound, says Paul Bernardi, a personal trainer at Global Fitness Center in Yonkers. Therefore, to lose weight, create a deficit of 500 calories per day (3,500 per week)—be it through diet, exercise, or, ideally, a combo of both. To slim down, low-intensity aerobics are key, says Bernardi, who recommends the StairMaster, treadmill, elliptical trainer, or even a simple walk around the track, three to four times a week for 40 minutes a session. Aerobic exercise burns calories. However, Bernardi warns against doing only aerobic exercise. He recommends pairing it with anaerobic (muscle-building) activity twice a week, an hour per session—for instance, dumbbell bench presses, overhead pulldowns, seated rows, squats, and lunges. The reason is the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, Bernardi says. He says, “If I have more muscle tissue than you, and we walk the same track, same speed, same distance, and same amount of time, I’m going to burn more calories than you. Just how much more? Well, it depends on how much muscle mass you have.”

Nutritionist Advice: A woman weighing 150 pounds needs about 1,800 calories a day to maintain her weight; a 180-pound man needs about 2,150 calories. To lose weight, eat less. But don’t go overboard—extreme diets don’t work. White Plains-based registered dietician Eva To says, “Ninety-seven percent of extreme dieters will regain all of the weight lost and then some within five years.” Why? The brain needs glucose to function—and when it isn’t getting enough, the body breaks down muscle for glucose. This decreases metabolism even more, and because you’re losing muscle, you’re burning fewer calories. “It’s a famine state, and, by the time you start eating normally again, your body thinks you’re ingesting bonus calories and stores it all away,” To says. She advises, eat every three hours (three meals and three snacks) and move after each meal—otherwise, she says, the enzyme that burns calories shuts down. “Most people eat the biggest meal at night, then move from the dinner table to the couch. At least stand up. Walk the dog.”

4. Goal: Gain Muscle

Why it’s important: “Your metabolism works more efficiently when you have more muscle on your body,” says Lenny Sarrero, a Briarcliff Manor-based personal trainer. “Your tendons and ligaments are less prone to injury, you can slow down the muscle loss that comes with growing older, better maintain blood sugar levels, and more. All in all, it’s a better quality of life.”

Trainer Advice: Sarrero, a former gymnast and competitive bodybuilder, prefers free weights for bulking up. He points out there are two areas of focus: muscular strength (“pure, out-of-the-box ability to pick up weights and do something once”) and muscular endurance (“the ability to not hit the wall”). “If you want to build strength, stick with a low rep range and use higher weights. When you want shape and endurance, increase the number of reps in each set and lower the weights, he says. Some examples: for chest, do bench presses with barbells or chest presses with dumbbells (laying flat on your back looking at the ceiling). For back, do wide-grip seated lat pulldowns, with the cable overhead, and pull the bar down underneath the chin. For shoulders, try seated overhead dumbbell shoulder presses. Biceps can be worked using the basic standing barbell curl or standing dumbbell curl. For triceps, Sarrero recommends cable tricep pushdowns—where the cable attachment is at chest height, and should be pushed down with the palms facing down. Lower back: Sarrero likes an exercise he calls Superman —stand on all fours, and put the left hand forward and right leg back. Hold and alternate. For legs, there are forward lunges, reverse lunges, and walking lunges, with or without dumbbells.

Nutritionist Advice: The more muscle you have, the easier it is to maintain your weight, says Tamra Rosenfeld, a registered dietician in Bedford Hills. She recommends that a quarter of your meals come from carbs, a quarter from protein, and half from vegetables. “Carbohydrates are a lot more important than people think,” she says. “People tend to have too little of it and focus more on protein.” When aiming to gain muscle, protein intake should only increase slightly from 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (for someone who’s not yet building muscle) to 1g per kilogram of body weight, she says. About an hour before a workout, Rosenfeld suggests having a carb snack that’s low in fat (so the body can break it down easily and use the energy immediately). A piece of fruit has about 15g of carbs and provides energy for half an hour to an hour of exercise. Also—have lots of fruits and raw veggies (7 to 11 servings a day). “You lose vitamins when boiling, so unless you’re drinking the water you’re cooking it in, you’re losing it.”

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5. Goal: Increase Endurance

Why it’s important: “Having better endurance will enable you to do an activity longer, even if it’s just playing with your kids,” says Darian Silk, an endurance coach at Altheus Health and Sport in Rye. “From a health standpoint, engaging in physical activity can help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, manage your body weight, and regulate blood sugar.”

Trainer Advice: Silk, who is a certified triathlon coach and won his age group at the Nautica New York City Triathlon in 2007, explains that the cardiovascular system is the key component in endurance training. The bigger the muscle you’re exercising, the more blood the body needs to pump, and the stronger the heart must work—therefore, the stronger the heart will become. Silk recommends starting at 20 to 30 minutes of activity per day, five days a week—and working up. Walking, running, cycling, skiing, and snowshoeing are all beneficial. “To improve,” he says, “you want to increase either the duration, intensity, or number of times you exercise per week. So with running, run longer, more frequently, or increase your speed without decreasing duration.” Circuit training—doing squats, pushups, chin-ups, and lunges—works large muscle groups, both developing muscular strength while increasing endurance.

Nutritionist Advice: According to Karen Reznik Dolins, a sports nutritionist based in Mamaroneck, increased endurance equals a stronger heart, which translates into a better ability to use fats and sugars for fuel (because cardiovascular fitness increases enzymes that break down fat and sugar). This, in turn, leads to healthy blood levels and also increases one’s energy. To help achieve this, she recommends having a meal or snack within four hours of starting a workout, with carbohydrates as the main focus. A bowl of cereal with lowfat milk, yogurt, a turkey sandwich, or a piece of fruit are all good fuel before exercising. Hydration is also vital, says Dolins. “Drink enough water so that the urine is clear before the workout, and continue to drink regularly throughout the workout.” It is just as important to replace nutrients afterward, once again keeping in mind the importance of carbohydrates. A healthy, balanced meal following a workout would be a piece of chicken covering one-third of a plate, along with rice or potatoes covering another third, and vegetables and fruit covering the final third, says Dolins.


Eva To
3 Barker Ave, White Plains
(914) 428-6336

Dina Khader
39 Smith Ave, Mount Kisco
(914) 242-0124

Karen Dolins
921 West Boston Post Rd, Mamaroneck
(914) 391-2982

Tamra B Rosenfeld
17 Shady Brook Ln, Bedford Hills
(914) 260-6216

Geri Brewster
14 Smith Ave, Mount Kisco
(914) 864-1976


Paul Bernardi
Global Fitness Center
965 Nepperhan Ave, Yonkers
(914) 774-3815

Lenny Sarrero
Lenny Sarrero Fitness
549 N State Rd, Briarcliff Manor
(914) 944-4300

Darian Silk
Altheus Health and Sport
2 Clinton Ave, Rye
(914) 921-3044

Peter Belmar
Belmars Muay Thai Kickboxing & Fitness
5 Prospect Ave, White Plains
(914) 426-0359

Matt Marruci
New Castle Physical Therapy and Personal Training
16 Schuman Rd, Millwood
(914) 488-5440

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