Get Fit Quick?

April 30, 2014

The pitfalls of the latest health trends

Extreme forms of fitness and diet can seduce dancers with their promises of fast, life-changing results. The intensity appeals to our competitive side. And the lure of rapid transformation is so tempting it can make us want to set aside our knowledge about the limits of our own bodies.

But the truth is there are no shortcuts to a healthier, stronger body. Even Roman Baca, a former marine who is now artistic director of Exit12 Dance Company in New York, warns against today’s all-out workouts. “I hurt my back multiple times doing CrossFit,” he says. Coming from someone who has endured both the rigors of ballet and boot camp, his is a cautionary tale: Taking drastic measures to get the ultimate body comes with serious risks. These five health trends may be all the rage, but they could have dangerous effects for dancers.


This workout, developed by a former gymnast with a background training police, measures physical fitness increases through markers of strength and speed. Exercises emphasize the repetition of basic calisthenics such as squats, push-ups and pull-ups. According to the method, it’s also defined by the “community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together”—crediting this community as part of the regimen’s effectiveness.

For dancers, who are used to charting incremental physical progress, such as getting their leg higher in développé or adding one more turn, as well as being constantly challenged by peers, this workout seems like a natural fit. However, Baca found the pressure of the group and the coach to be part of what contributed to his back injury. “I was encouraged to do the big power moves like overhead squats as fast and with as many reps as possible, in a time limit, and with an emphasis on speed rather than form,” he says.

While strength training can certainly be beneficial for dancers, Shannon Casati, a physical therapist assistant who has trained dancers from Ballet Austin, advises against workouts that introduce more repetitive stress. Performing the same movements over and over can fatigue the body to the point of injury by overworking certain muscles and joints. “Dance is inherently repetitive,” she says. “The ideal cross-training for dancers takes away the repetitive stress and instead focuses on alignment and quality of movement.” Because dancers are often hypermobile, proper form is especially crucial. Casati recommends  safer alternatives such as lifting light weights or doing resistance training like Pilates or yoga. As for Baca, he continues to do some of the exercises he learned from CrossFit, but “slowly, carefully and safely, in my own home.”

Intermittent Fasting

On the heels of the master cleanse craze, intermittent fasting has emerged to take its place. This practice generally involves 24-hour periods of eating meals followed by a 24-hour period of fasting—sharply reducing caloric intake. Some practitioners alternate days (1:1) while others fast twice a week (also referred to as the 5:2 diet).

The bold health claims of fasting, including losing weight, treating chronic diseases, easing inflammation and improving cognitive function, are alluring. However, registered dietitian Beth Jauquet warns that significantly restricting your food intake this way will lead to a loss of muscle mass. “You need carbohydrates to provide the body with fuel and to aid in the recovery of muscle tissue,” she explains. Also, taking in a fraction of the normal calories while dancing pushes your body into a caloric deficit, potentially leading to dangerous weight loss that could result in the so-called female-athlete triad: a mix of low energy, loss of menstrual cycle and low bone-mass density.

The Paleo Diet

The most Googled diet of 2013, the Paleo Diet proposes that literally eating like a caveman can help you lose weight and optimize your health. As encapsulated in a popular book by Dr. Loren Cordain, the diet suggests eating only foods that were available to our ancestors during the Stone Age, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and meat. It emphasizes protein over carbohydrates, similar to the Atkins diet.

The diet includes some sound health practices. “I really believe in some of the diet’s principles, such as using healthy oils like coconut, avocado and olive, limiting refined sugar, trans fats and alcohol intake, and the emphasis on eating vegetables,” says health coach Stephanie Burg. But the problem is that going back to the Stone Age also means cutting out dairy, beans and whole grains like rice, whole wheat, barley and oats—the complex carbohydrates that dancers burn as fuel. “Athletes need a substantial amount of carbohydrates for energy and muscle recovery,” says Jauquet. “Eating this way could create a diet too low in carbohydrates and certain vitamins and minerals.” The lack of calcium is a particular concern, since it’s needed to build bone density and prevent fractures.

Burg adds that eating a lot of meat can also feel heavy on the stomach—something a dancer might not want during the workday. And for vegetarians, who often rely on beans as a cost-effective source of protein and fiber, the diet can be far too restrictive, and increase the risk of injury.

Running Marathons

When even models and celebrities lace up to take on races like the New York City Marathon, it can be easy to underestimate what a marathon takes. But running 26.2 miles requires at least three months of disciplined training: generally a few shorter-distance runs plus a long run each week, sometimes going up to 20 or 22 miles. A dancer might imagine the glory of crossing the finish line to be like the drama of taking a bow after a performance of Swan Lake. But can the same person safely balance both of these virtuoso performances?

Most dance physicians agree that in moderation, short jogs can be a fine form of cardiovascular training for dancers. However, Casati cautions that dancing, and in particular jumping, already puts a lot of pressure on the hips, knees and ankles. Running stresses those same joints, and overdoing it can lead to muscle tightness in areas like the hip flexors and injuries such as cartilage damage and tendinitis.

“A dancer is more likely to push her limits because that is who she is,” says Casati. Ask yourself, Why you are running? Is it the runner’s high, or are you looking for cardio and increased endurance? If the answer is the latter, Casati suggests trying lower-impact options that are easier on the joints, such as a “run” on the elliptical machine or swimming laps in a pool.

Unregulated Supplements

Concentrated green tea extract. St. John’s wort. Ginkgo biloba. These common dietary supplements claim to help you lose weight, feel less depressed, have more energy. But how do you know what is really in those bottles?

You don’t. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements, and they aren’t tested for safety or efficacy. According to recent articles in The New York Times, researchers have found surprising ingredients inside supplement bottles—often not what the package claimed to have. Additionally, the recommended dosage of a nutrient may not be accurate or safe.

“People don’t understand what they are using or how it combines with what they are taking,” says Burg. “Supplements can also be rough on the gastrointestinal tract. They can be unnecessary and irritate your system.” One recent study found that some antioxidant supplements could even impede the muscle strengthening effects of your workouts!

If you feel you need a boost beyond a balanced diet, Burg suggests taking a high-quality whole-food–based multivitamin and IFOS-certified fish oil. But if you are curious about any other supplements, consult with a doctor first—someone who has a complete understanding of the interaction between holistic herbal supplements and prescription drugs.

Candice Thompson, a certified Pilates teacher, writes for Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher.