Wellness in the New Year: Interview with Rafael Curiel, McAllen Employee Wellness Coach

The new year has just started, and like many of us, you might have made a resolution to eat better, exercise, de-stress, and improve your overall wellness. This is great, but we all know that it’s very hard to make those choices a permanent lifestyle change, and not just a temporary resolution that will be given up in a few weeks. Luckily for City of McAllen employees and anyone reading this blog, we have our own Wellness Coach- Rafael Curiel, who has provided really great advice on all sorts of wellness topics. I learned a lot and felt inspired to get healthier, so hopefully you will too! You can also check out our new e-book collections of wellness topics on the Libby and Overdrive apps- check out the fitness collection, the healthy eating collection, and the stress-relief collection.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Wellness Coach

If your New Year’s resolution is to exercise more and get into shape, what are your tips for making it a manageable goal, so that it’s a permanent lifestyle change and not a temporary January thing?

It really comes down to time management. As weird as it is for us to write down how we spend the hours that make up our weeks, that is something that should be done before you start on any workout program that you plan on sticking to for the foreseeable future. One way to make a workout schedule is to use the Excel program (you can go to the McAllen Public Library for that) and plan out your days- work, school, chores, social activities, entertainment, and working out. You might be surprised to find out how much extra time you have for working out when everything else is scheduled. Remember that this is a wellness program, so while working out is important, we also want to make sure that it’s a schedule that doesn’t have you too stressed out to make it a permanent change. Permanent changes only happen when we make plans and begin with the end result in mind. If you really want to make a workout program permanent instead of temporary, you need to take the time to go through your work week and plan it out to where you can say, “These are the minutes or hours that I have to do my workout.”

Let’s say you only have 30 minutes a day to exercise at home. What kinds of exercises should you do? How should you make the most of it?

running-runner-long-distance-fitness-40751I want to address the type of question that this is first, because it already starts with a time constraint of 30 minutes. If that was asked to me by an individual in a wellness session, my next question would be, “Why do you think that 30 minutes is all you have for working out?” We would have to get to the heart of where that idea or philosophy comes from. Most of us who have had workout opportunities had them in high school or middle school, and there was a time constraint of about an hour. Changing and preparing for the activity left you with only about 30 minutes for the physical activity. Then when you a fast-forward to your adult years, a lot of workout programs that are for people with perceived time management issues are set at 30 minutes for the workout. I can see how it would be appealing to have a 30 minute workout every day. However, if you were to reschedule your time and find at least 2 sessions a week where you can really do a total body workout, which would be about an hour and a half to two hours each workout depending on the person, you would accomplish much more. So if the average is 30 minutes per day that you’re going to allot for working out, see if you can move those sessions into 1 and a half to 2 hours twice a week, and then something like a walk in the park on the weekend, so that you’re exercising 2 or 3 times a week.

If you really only have 30 minutes, I would recommend body weight exercises that are not very intense and that focus on breathing, balance, and mobility, rather than resistance training, so that you don’t try to lift too much and injure yourself. Instead, what you’re going to focus on is the posing, the breathing, and getting relaxation and an internal balance from your workout. For that, I would recommend 30 minutes of yoga, tai chi, or pilates. Those are the 3 workout modalities that don’t involve a lot of equipment, and people can do them at home as long as they have a relatively safe area in their house. These are for people who are already in a perceivable healthy state. There are some people who should not work out at home by themselves due to previous injuries or health conditions, and they should work out in a group or with a professional who can keep an eye on them.

What is better for burning fat, cardio or weight training? I know cardio burns more calories, but I’ve heard that weight training increases your metabolism and helps you burn more calories post-workout.

Whenever you have a resistance workout, the muscle fibers have to work beyond the workout time, and they have to continue to fix themselves so that they can become stronger. In order to do that, they’re going to use calories, which is the energy that we get from food, and sometimes even from fat that’s in storage. Burning fat is a common perceived need among people who are trying to get in shape. If I was having a first-time discussion with someone about setting their goals, they would probably say that burning fat is the most important thing in order for them to get healthy. That is a pretty significant jump from one to the other. People should prioritize mobility and knowledge of functional movement before they turn up the heat, before they bring in intensity, either through cardio or resistance training. Remember that in both of these workout modalities there is an element of self-discovery, and part of it is knowing what your limits are and slowly pushing past those limits into a new realm of fitness or wellness.

cardio-treadmill_1Now to get past that jump where you’re going to start pushing your boundaries, it’s important to work out with somebody who can objectively see what is going on with your mobility and your movement and point things out to you. Because if you don’t, you might get a mysterious injury after a couple of months. It’s going to be because you didn’t have a professional to point it out on the first or second or third workout and say, “I appreciate the effort that you’re putting in here, but if you keep on in this pattern, that could cause injury in the future.” It’s a lot like putting a mechanic in the passenger seat of your car and having the mechanic watch you drive around town. You know the rules of the road, but how you treat your vehicle is going to make a big difference in how much maintenance and costly repairs you need in the future. It’s the same way a personal trainer can tailor your workout and tell you how much cardio and resistance you should be doing for the goals that you set. It’s on an individual basis. Fitness magazines put out a lot of generalized information about the “perfect workout”- it might be the perfect workout for the person who wrote the article, but not necessarily the best one for you. Remember people come in all different shapes and sizes, all different levels of background knowledge, different types of injuries and goals, and so the best thing to do is have a professional, who has been trained to help you set these goals, monitor your progress as you make these achievements.

Let’s say you have gained a few pounds over the past couple of years, and you’re not sure why because your diet and activity level haven’t changed. You eat healthily, and although you don’t exercise as much as you should, you’re far from sedentary. What’s the most likely cause of the weight gain? Is it just a slowing metabolism? Is this normal for people in their 30’s?

sport-2264825_960_720We really learn the value of working out when we’re in our 30’s. We take it for granted in our 20’s because we feel invincible- we can eat whatever we want and sleep at odd hours,  but all the things that we do to ourselves in our 20’s become the price that we pay in our 30’s and 40’s. For anybody out there who has a young person in their life, and you’re noticing what they’re doing to themselves in their 20’s, let them know this is a lot like living on your credit card. It might seem fun at first, but the bill comes due later on in the form of something called visceral fat. This is the fat that surrounds our kidneys, our heart, internal organs, and flows through our blood. This visceral fat is caused by certain lifestyle choices. The more alcohol we consume in our 20’s, the higher our visceral fat in our 30’s and 40’s. It’s the same thing with food or food-like substances that have a lot of chemicals. We’re not going to feel the consequences immediately, but by the time we notice it has risen, it’s too late to make a quick change. Anything that we’ve done to our internal organs in our 20’s and early 30’s will have consequences as we get older and accumulate other conditions and injuries. So you’re just piling on to the normal consequences of aging the harmful things that we might have done to ourselves in our youth.  That’s called “compression of morbidity,” which means that when you add up all the things that are killing us, eventually you will shorten your life span and your quality of life.

So if you know somebody who is in their 30’s and they find it very hard to work out, you need to shake them up a bit, have a frank conversation, and let them know that if they think it’s hard to work out in their 30’s, it will be twice as hard to work out in their 60’s (if they make it to their 60’s). These are things that actually do result in death as our internal organs start to wear out. Without being too bleak about it, it’s one thing to want to work out for aesthetic reasons- to look good- but in the end, we really want to extend people’s lives and their quality of life. So if you’re drinking a certain amount of alcohol a week, try to cut that back, or if you’re smoking a pack of cigarettes a week, cut that out completely and have a better life in your 40’s and 50’s.

Lowering your visceral fat will also make it easier to have a great workout, because we won’t have problems with our internal organs. A lot of people think that their muscles are the only thing they need to have a good workout, but you also need clear lungs and unobstructed passages for breathing, and to not have too much visceral fat in your bloodstream or around your internal organs. It’s that snowball effect- if you have more things going right for you as you enter your 30’s and 40’s, you’ll feel better, but if you have more things going wrong for you, then that’ll prevent you from working out and your problems will get worse. Don’t ever give up hope, though. Wherever a person is, as long as they’re still alive, they can change their future by switching things around like their nutrition, education, and exercise habits. Yes, it’s a downer, but I guarantee you it’s going to be worth the time and effort.

There are a lot of crash diets that have extravagant claims about helping you lose 5 pounds in 1 week, or similar claims. What makes these crash diets unhealthy?

CrashDeiting-NutritionThere are a few reasons, but the number one thing that makes crash diets unhealthy is that they’re usually based on cheap supplements as their backbone. So it’ll be a supplement with a hook like, “Take this supplement for X amount of time and lose 5 pounds in a week.” Well, the problem with that is that a lot of the time supplements that are made cheaply- and we’re talking $35-$40 per bottle- contain additives that confuse hormone production in your endocrine system. So let’s say that you’re taking a supplement that’s really high in caffeine, and the caffeine is supposed to burn the fat. The caffeine will also lead to sleeplessness, then that in turn leads to anxiety attacks, so your cortisol goes up, and then ultimately you end up with more inflammation, and you might get sick 2 or 3 weeks after taking the supplements. When you put a foreign substance into your body, your body takes time to learn how to use it, if it’s going to use it at all. Then there are a lot of additives in some supplements that will in fact lead to inflammation, confuse your hormones, and cause them to not work properly. All that confusion will then increase your weight. So a lot of times, the very supplements that people buy to lose weight cause them to gain weight in the long run, even though in the short term it might seem like they’re doing something positive for themselves.

I would recommend that you go to the Reference section at the library and look for the Physician’s Desk Reference, also known as the PDR, and it tells you what supplements physicians prescribe. Those are going to be the ones that don’t have a lot of additives and are safer for increasing your overall health, not just weight loss. In addition to that, if you are looking at a supplement that has a circle on the label with the letters NSF, that stands for National Safety Foundation. It means that it has gone through at least a third party inspection to get the validation to say that it’s a safe product. So if you’re wanting to go on a crash diet, you should get away from that mentality, because you could end up losing the same 10 pounds every year. It’s that yo-yo dieting. You want to make sure that whatever you do, you don’t constrain it by a certain time period. Don’t just say you’re going on a diet- make it a lifestyle change that’s something positive, something that you can live with, and make sure that you stick to it and it becomes part of who you are.

What is the best and healthiest way to quickly lose a few pounds?

Remember that if you’re exercising right, with a professional, it’s going to be inconvenient, it’s going to be awkward, and it’s going to take time to reorganize your muscle fiber. Unless you’re a former athlete who just needs to regain muscle memory, you probably have not learned why you use certain movement patterns. If you want to lose a few pounds quickly and you’re wondering if exercise is the best way, the answer is probably not. If you’re only getting 4 or 5 hours of sleep, you should bring it up to 8. You’d be surprised the amount of weight you can lose just from getting the proper amount of sleep. But best way to lose 5 pounds very quickly is to educate yourself on the ingredients that go into the food or food-like substances that you consume. If you can, cut out or replace foods that have too many man-made chemicals. You will notice that your inflammation will drop very quickly. There are many people who think they don’t really eat anything bad, but you should read the labels on what you eat. You’ll see that this product that you thought was ok is actually full of man-made chemicals, dyes, and preservatives. Try to get rid of that stuff from your diet, and replace it with something more natural. You’ll be surprised at how fast your inflammation drops, and that inflammation is partially responsible for our weight gain. So that would be the number one thing I would recommend if you’re trying to lose weight quickly. You don’t have to buy anything. Instead, look at what you’re already consuming and get rid of things that cause inflammation. You’d be surprised at how fast the body heals itself and gets rid of inflammation. You might actually get more done in your workouts, because you’ll have more energy.

Many of us over-indulged in tamales, cookies, and other rich, fatty foods over the holidays. It was good while it lasted, but now you feel like you gained 10 pounds. What’s the best way to recover from the post-holiday tamale hangover?

With or without the holidays, winter means a metabolic slow-down. We are never too far away from our ancestral past. If you get a chance to look into epigenetics, these are traits and behaviors that are in our genome that have been passed down to us from our ancestors. It’s a new science, and scientists are still learning how information is passed through the genes from one generation to the next. What has been passed down to us is that in the winter we slow down our metabolic process for “survival mode”. Everybody wants all 12 months of the calendar planned out, nice and neat on a sheet of paper. You think to yourself, “We live in a modern society. Anything that I can do in June and July, I can do in December and January.” And that’s not the way nature works. So right now we’re in a slow-down time. It’s reduced because we have heaters and lighting and we don’t feel it as much as our ancestors did. But it’s still written into our DNA that when we sense cold outside for a long period of time, we are going to shut down certain processes and slow down certain things.

Getty-Tamales-5810c4a75f9b58564c28e5f8In addition to that, we will have a tendency to want to eat things that are higher in salt, fat, and sugar in the winter. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum. But where do these high fat foods come from? Do they come from our culture that caused us to want to eat them, or is it that we are living in this specific time of year that then makes us want to seek out those things? So just having that knowledge might help you to get some leverage over all these things that people serve during the holidays. You can tell yourself, “Ok, that’s just my ancestral DNA telling me I need  to eat something higher in fat so that I can survive the winter, but I don’t have to do that, I can fight it.” Especially when you look up how many calories are in a tamale! Don’t be too hard on yourself in January and February when you’re recovering from winter. As you see the weather starting to change and more sunny days, you can say, “Ok, now I can get out and get more physical activity.” In the winter you do more of your physical activity inside, and that will also prevent you from having more slips and falls or other problems related to the cold.

Heart disease is the #1 cause of death in women. What are the best ways to prevent heart disease? I know diet and exercise are important, but do you have any specific tips?

15116947119_7951849d73_bFrom a woman’s perspective, I want to say that probably the most important thing a person can do is relax. Cortisol is the killer. Cortisol is the cause of our increased stress. Remember, winter time survival mode and the flight or fight responses as the weather changes are written in our DNA. So when you watch people who are affected by depression or are expressing anger on the roadways, being rude in stores or restaurants, even sometimes family arguments, know that the stress is internal. We look for something outside of ourselves to explain why we are stressed. Maybe an analogy is the best way to explain it. Have you ever had the nightmare that you are alone somewhere kind of creepy or dark, and you feel like someone is chasing you, so you start walking really fast? Then as you start walking faster, fear starts building up in you and the faster you walk, the more afraid you feel. Before you know it, you’re running at top speed and get to your destination, but when you turn around, you see that there was nothing chasing you. How did you get so scared? It’s because the action puts you in a certain state of mind and then that state feeds the action.

So in the winter time, you’re going to find that people who have a high cortisol level show it in different ways. For people who know how to relax and control their emotions, it might seem strange for these other people to get so worked up about things, but those people just need guidance in controlling their response to cortisol. Cortisol is what causes the stress, and I think that in order to prevent heart disease, exercise is one of the best ways, provided that you are working out for your wellness. If you start working out for competitions, like a marathon or body building contest, you are actually feeding the stress hormone. So assuming you’re working out for your wellness, having music on is great, talking to friends in between your sets is also good, but it’s very important to have some quiet time while you’re working out. Think about why you’re doing it, do your affirmations and visualizations, practice gratitude, and your cortisol and other stress hormone levels will decrease.

Also, two things that we don’t see people of either gender doing enough in the gym are exercises that have your arms up above your shoulders and your legs above your heart. Working out with your arms up above your shoulders, like a shoulder press or something with free weights that gets your arms over your head, will help your lymph drainage, and as your lymph becomes more free flowing and cleans out your system, that lowers stress as well.  Another thing that people don’t do enough is exercises that get the legs above the heart. You should work out sometimes with your legs slightly elevated above your heart, like a leg press or a shoulder stand, and these exercises will also help your lymph system drainage. You decrease your stress and your risk of heart disease. Remember, heart disease is a combination of a lot of different conditions.

So I would say those are the three things you should do. Make sure you do exercises that have your legs slightly above your heart, that have your arms above your shoulders, and make sure that you decrease your cortisol. You can do that with mindfulness techniques, with meditation, there are a lot of different ways, and it’s especially important in the winter. Personally, my favorite way is to take out my guitar and play songs that I’ve known for several years. For some reason, just being able to express myself artistically and creatively brings my stress level down. Anything that you can do to de-stress that is personal and mind-centering will always be of benefit.

Here in the Rio Grande Valley, many people suffer from Type 2 Diabetes. What kinds of lifestyle choices should people make to prevent Type 2 Diabetes?

heart-1480779_1920Some cases of type 2 diabetes can be avoided, although in some people it’s family history or hereditary. I would say the number 1 thing we can do to prevent type 2 diabetes is getting daily exercise, even if it’s just walking around and getting your blood flowing. The other thing you can do is limit sweet foods. We’re not just talking about foods that are high in sugar. We’re also talking about foods that have artificial sweeteners. These artificial sweeteners rewire the taste buds, and once  they get rewired and you’re expecting to eat sweets all day long, you’re not going to want something like water, because it won’t taste like what you’re expecting. Water is necessary to our system, so if that’s something that you don’t appreciate, you need to retrain your system to appreciate it. You should always discourage the idea that you don’t like the way water “tastes,” because that is a dangerous sign of possibly becoming pre-diabetic, since you’re always expecting things to taste sweet. Additionally, artificial sweeteners kill good bacteria in our stomachs and digestive system. So to prevent type 2 diabetes, for most people I would say stay away from sweeteners as much as possible. If you’re going to have a slice of cake or chocolate to satisfy a craving, I would prefer that you have something home-made, that has as much natural ingredients as possible.

It’s also important to expose kids to all types of fruits and vegetables from a young age. Even if they don’t want to eat it, you can still have them help chop the vegetables and prepare the food, and it will teach them to start appreciating it. Getting kids to work with food in its raw form will encourage them to try eating it.

What resources (like websites) do you recommend for people to learn more about wellness?

healthfinder.gov– General health information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

medlineplus.gov– Health reference information from the U.S. National Library of Medicine



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