Research has already established that daily exercise does not play a large role in weight loss, and I think that is a major misconception for anyone who embarks on a journey to “lose weight.” Before you start working out, ask yourself, why do you want to exercise? What is your motivation? Is it that you want to improve your weight, become a better athlete, manage stress, etc.? It’s different for all of us and there is no wrong answer, but it might help you set better and more realistic goals.
As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joanne Donoghue. Joanne is a PhD, a nutritionist and exercise physiologist at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, NY. An associate professor and director of clinical research for the university’s medical school, she has had multiple publications in the exercise science field, and has presented her work both domestically and internationally. Her biggest accomplishment is being a hands on full-time working mother of two boys and wife while maintaining her passion for running and fitness. Dr. Donoghue is a 6x marathoner and 2x Ironman finisher.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?
Iwas born with a congenital hip problem and growing up I was told that I should not and could not play sports. Being told you “can’t” is a very powerful motivator when deep inside you know that you can. I went on to be a successful athlete and played sports throughout high school and college. I wanted to work in a field that I can help others find the power of movement and exercise. However, although I was an athlete, I also struggled with food control. When I took my first nutrition class in high school I was fascinated by food science and how that applied to active people. I’ve been hooked on nutrition and fitness ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Our university has a specialized treatment center for patients with Parkinson’s disease, and sometimes we have retired New York athletes that will attend events and help spread awareness for the cause. While at one of these events I met several retired professional hockey players who I had watched during my childhood. It turned out that one of them was a marathon runner, like me, as well as a triathlete who shared my ambitions to do an Ironman competition. We’ve since ended up becoming good friends and training partners, and I learned a lot from training with a pro athlete! We both finished the Ironman (he was faster, sadly) but not many people get the chance to train and attain a life goal alongside a professional athlete that they grew up watching on TV.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
When I first started working in rehabilitation, I was very young and my peers were mostly male. I thought that in order to be taken seriously in this field I had to dress more masculine and hide any part of being a woman. My patients at the time were geriatrics, they were from a different generation. After some time I had an older patient bring me a gift. When I opened it, to my shock it was a very feminine outfit. She told me I was such a pretty girl and I would never find a husband dressing the way I was. Now, this story might anger women today, but it also made me realize that I was dressing to take the attention away from the fact that I was a woman. I wasn’t dressing to make me feel comfortable in my own skin, but outfits that I thought would help me to be taken seriously at work.
When I started dressing the way I felt most comfortable, I wasn’t trying to hide my curves or the fact that I was a female. The gift this patient gave me was a lesson, not only to not be offended by people. Her intentions were good. I realized that in order to use my expertise and help others reach their full potential, I had to first be comfortable with myself. On that note, I love the changes that have occurred in the world today. When I look at younger women today I have such envy for the confidence they have and the freedom to be who they are. There is still work to be done, but it’s refreshing to see that they are gaining more opportunities to be themselves.
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
Sports have always been the biggest part of my life. I was an athlete, but I also struggled with weight fluctuations. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition, a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology and a Doctorate of philosophy in Alternative and Holistic Nutrition. My education has been fantastic in this field, however, I am also a marathon runner, a two-time Ironman finisher, and a triathlete. I’ve struggled with nutrition and training just as everyone else has. My perspective is unique in that I bring evidence-based knowledge, as well as personal experience, to the people that I help. What’s better than that!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My junior high soccer coach. As I mentioned, I had a slight disability and I started sports much later than other kids. I was good, but I did things a little differently. I didn’t think I would make the team because of it. In tryouts he pulled me aside and worked with me for over an hour on my power kick. He figured out how to get me to be one of the best kickers on the team by teaching me that it was okay to do things differently as long as I got the job done. It seems like a simple story, but to a 12-year-old girl he did wonders for me that day. I went on to be a college soccer player, an all-county track runner, and a volleyball player.
However, a few years later when I had to try out to be exempt from swimming class, he failed me. I should have passed hands down, but I didn’t put in my best effort. He failed me not on my physical ability, but my lack of effort to try my hardest. It wasn’t fair, and that was the second lesson he made sure I learned. Life isn’t fair and sometimes even though you may think you deserve something it doesn’t mean you are going to get it. I sat through a year of unnecessary swimming lessons and it was a very humbling experience for me. He didn’t accept anything less than my best effort. He was my inspiration for pushing myself to do marathons and an Ironman.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
We all have a daily routine that we usually follow. Most of us get up and go to work, or get up and have to take care of kids (even harder than going to work) or both! You may have a long commute; you may feel you don’t spend enough time with family and friends. Doing things for ourselves usually becomes our lowest priority. Preparing healthy food takes time that many of us do not have, so grabbing on the go has become part of our culture. Unfortunately, quick food is usually not healthy food. Doing meal preparations in advance can take the stress off not knowing what to eat, and try to slow down and enjoy food. Being prepared and prepping in advance can eliminate mindless eating.
Stress creates hormone secretions in our brain that increase cortisol levels and wreak havoc on our hormones. We’ve all heard the term” stress eating,” and that’s actually a real thing. When we’re high stressed, certain foods that are high in sugar can create a sense of calm for us and comfort. Although it brings us temporary relief, long term it creates poor habits.
The other pitfall that we see from those who exercise frequently is the idea that more is better and that rest days hold us back. That could not be farther from the truth, rest! Designate one rest day a week into your regimen. I tell people to take their rest day on a day when you make time for friends and family. That way giving yourself permission to rest will be meaningful not only physically but also emotionally.
Healthy food can be expensive. Unfortunately, it does not have to be, so let me rephrase that. Buying prepared healthy food is expensive. Preparing your own healthy food can be much more cost effective. But that brings us back to the problem of “time”. Your health should be your priority, designating one day for a few hours to plan a weekly menu can give you the ability to plan healthy meals and budget for it.
Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)
1. Well first, research has already established that daily exercise does not play a large role in weight loss, and I think that is a major misconception for anyone who embarks on a journey to “lose weight.” Before you start working out, ask yourself, why do you want to exercise? What is your motivation? Is it that you want to improve your weight, become a better athlete, manage stress, etc.? It’s different for all of us and there is no wrong answer, but it might help you set better and more realistic goals.
2. Know your calorie intake and your macronutrient intake. This is a big one for me. We all can say how many gallons of gas our cars need to run, but most people have no idea how many calories their own body requires just to function. This can be done doing a resting metabolic test by a nutritionist or through estimated formulas that aren’t as precise, but may help give you an estimate.
3. This brings me to my third tweak. Write your diet down. Using an application like MyFitnessPal allows you to see how many calories you are consuming, and also will break down your percentage of how many carbohydrate, protein and fat makes up your diet. Most of us have hidden fat and simple carbohydrates hidden in our food that we may not realize. Sometimes only minor tweaks can make a big difference. I realized I was carelessly using coffee sweetener every morning and by the time noon time came I had consumed over 30 grams of sugar just from coffee. It was a small tweak I made and it made a big difference in my calorie intake.
4. Make sure you eat enough to fuel your body and activity. One of the research areas I love to explore is how our metabolisms respond to exercise. And it’s not always what you’d think! In a recent study we compared middle distance female runners to long distance female runners of the same age and found that the long distance runners, despite racking more workout time, were taking in much lass calories than their bodies needed. This caloric deficit caused them to have much slower metabolic rates. Our bodies are smart. If you aren’t taking in enough of the proper calories, it will slow its metabolism down to conserve energy.
5. Stop weighing yourself. As an athlete the scale can be very misleading. Muscle is denser than fat therefore it weighs more. Stepping on a scale and seeing 5–10 pound weight fluctuations not only can be a major mind tease, it can be inaccurate. An example I can give you was a patient who lost 40 pounds doing Weight Watchers. When we measured her body composition pre- and post- diet, she had lost 20 pounds of fat and 20 pounds of muscle. That is counterproductive because her resting metabolic rate is now reduced and so is her strength. Do not be a slave to the scale.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?
- It will improve your mood. This is shown consistently in research. Physical activity stimulates certain brain chemicals that can make you feel less anxious and relaxed.
- Regular exercise will help you with a better night sleep (as long as it’s not too close to bed time where it energizes you!)
- Daily exercise can help reduce chances of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and many more. I do want to stress that weight loss does not have to occur to get these benefits from exercise, sometimes weight loss may just be a bonus!
For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?
There are no specific three exercises that would fit everyone, but I would suggest the following 3 types of exercises:
- Cardiovascular: Anything that gets your blood pumping (e.g. jumping jacks, jogging in place. Something that make you exert yourself so that you may feel out of breath and forces you to leave your comfort zone.
- Strength training: the most overlooked exercise for most. We lose muscle mass every year after the age of 40. We don’t have to. Muscles keep us strong and functional. Doing simple squats, sit-ups, and pushups can do wonders. If it’s good enough for militaries around the world, that should say something.
- Stretching: We need to elongate those muscles that spend most of the day in a tightened position. Especially if you work a desk job. Even if you don’t work in a physically demanding job, be nice to your muscles and do some light stretching.
In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long term injury?
Delayed onset muscle soreness usually occurs between 24 and 48 hours of intense exercise. Active recovery is effective in removing lactic acid and fluid form sore muscles. When you wake up with that incredible stiffness and pain for a day of exercise, your natural inclination is not to move. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Doing a form of light exercise such as walking, biking or stretching can help pump some of the fluid out of the swollen muscles and help them to repair. Even a light massage can be effective. If you feel your soreness is too much, then lighten up on the exercise next time, it’s not a bad thing to be a little sore! It’s a sign that you are using your muscles and it’s a sign of repair to rebuild to be stronger!
There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow? Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?
I typically never recommend a diet and I would use caution if you find someone who suggests one particular diet. Food is too personal, variable and there is no one size fits all for diet. Intermittent fasting is very popular right now. The theory is to consume your calories in an eight-hour timeframe and fast for the remainder. The theory is that during your fasting state you go into a ketogenic state and utilize fat for fuel. The real challenge is to eat the correct caloric needs and not to over eat within the time frame given. There are no long term studies supporting this diet, only shorter term ones. Any diet will be effective in the short term. It’s whether you can maintain that lifestyle.
The most effective tool I recommend is using an online app called MyFitnessPal, which allows you to assess your diet daily and have it broken down by percent of carbohydrate, protein and fat and allows you to record your caloric intake. From there we can make modifications to have someone eat what they would like, but maybe make slight changes to have them eat more desirable or to their caloric needs. I use this app regularly. Sometimes I get lazy and forget, but when I fall off track I go back to it. It keeps you honest and helps you understand where you can improve.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s the story of Louis Zamperini who was a troubled teen and an Olympic runner in the Berlin Olympics, but when he served in World War II and his plane crashed in the Pacific he became a castaway at sea for months. The story of survival at sea is remarkable enough for any person to endure, but what’s more is that he was also captured and taken to a Japanese prison camp where he was tortured and brought to the brink of death. When I read this book it’s a reminder of what the human soul’s drive to live, and a testament to how precious life is. We are capable of so much more than we believe (remember the Winnie the Pooh quote!).
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would urge everyone to recycle, to use less plastic and to buy more fuel efficient vehicles. My training partner told me his four-year-old grandson said “we need to be nice to the earth or it will die.” It’s a purposeful and beautiful outlook from a child who will inherit the planet from us. We need to leave our kids a better planet. I would never want my kids one day to say, “Why didn’t you do something?”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Just remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”- Winnie the pooh
I think this quote can relate to any person. I never believed I could do a marathon or an Ironman, I was stronger than I thought. I never thought I was smart enough to get my PhD and work in a medical field alongside brilliant people. This quote is so simple yet speaks volumes, it’s a reminder to everyone to not doubt yourself when life puts you to the test.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Danica Patrick. She succeeded as a racecar driver in a male dominant sport. She withstood so much criticism, and she was able to be a tough, strong woman while still embracing her feminine side by gracing the pages of Sports Illustrated swim suit issues. She is considered one of the top 100 most influential women in the world, and she is now focused on healthy eating, fitness and has her own podcast that is based on positivity and helping others be their best. Her training regimen is intense. I’m not sure if I would want lunch with her or just have one workout with her! She also is now an entrepreneur with her own clothing line “Warrior”. I would urge anyone to listen to her podcasts. She has accomplished so much and really can inspire women to see that anything is possible.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!