Understanding what we should be eating, and how much we should be working out can be challenging. Wanting to make healthier food choices is easy in principle, but can be a big challenge in practice.  Nora Minno, an award-winning registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, and star of the Daily Burn’s “DB365,” has made it her goal to make good health less complicated.  

Minno talks to Thrive about how to stay motivated and excited about your fitness routine, and easy ways to make better food choices.

Thrive Global: What is your morning routine? How do you set your day up for success?

Nora Minno: These days, I am woken up bright and early, not by an alarm, but by puppy kisses, thanks to my new puppy, Brooks.  I try and get my workout in first thing in the morning. Even if I am a little tired or groggy, I get myself down to the gym in my building and just start moving. I always find that the energy will come, even if I’m not feeling it right away. My fiancé and I like to work out together, which definitely helps, too! Working out first thing in the morning ensures that I get my workout in, no matter what crazy stuff might pop up the rest of the day. It also puts me in a good mood and makes me feel connected to my body for the rest of the day (let’s hear it for endorphins!). Studies have also shown that exercise in the morning can improve productivity and decision making later in the day at work, and I definitely feel the difference on the days when I don’t work out.

My schedule is pretty much different every day, so having a good morning routine, and some time set aside just for me, before my day officially starts makes me feel grounded. When I am en route to my first appointment (usually via the subway), I put some good music on, something inspiring for the day, and start going through my to-do list while my mind is fresh.

In addition to making a to-do list, I have also been setting morning intentions by asking myself, “How do I want to feel at the end of the day?” 

TG: Have you ever fallen off the fitness wagon?

NM: I’ve always been the type of person that loves to move, and I’ve known that I need movement for my mental health just as much as my physical health — my body craves it. I do try and honor my body and give it rest when it needs it. There have definitely been times where I have not wanted to work out, or I get bored of a routine. If there is a day that I just don’t feel like working out, I tell myself, “Think of how good you’ll feel after!” Also, if I feel like I’m in a lull with my routine, I’ll try and get outside my comfort zone and try a new class or make it a point to work out with friends to get inspired by others. 

TG: What advice do you have for people who want to get back to the gym, but find fitness overwhelming?

NM: First, I would say that workouts don’t have to be long or super intense to be effective. In fact, H.I.I.T. workouts as short as even 20 minutes have been proven to have effects on metabolism, mood, blood pressure, and VO2max. Second, fitness is not one size fits all. Don’t feel like you have to conform to a certain workout style or routine just because you see someone else doing it. Find something you enjoy, that makes you feel good, and that you can be consistent with, and start carving time out in your week to do it. You can always start small and build from there!

It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and think, I am so tired right now, I don’t want to work out, etc. Trust me, we’ve all been there! But I encourage you to think about those moments when you’ve worked so hard that sweat was dripping down your face, you were breathing heavy, and you felt so good! Harness that memory and use it as inspiration to get you going. 

TG: Are there ways to sneak in movement throughout the day? 

NM: Even if we work out in the morning, then sit at a desk all day, it can be detrimental to our health. I try to be very intentional with my schedule and sprinkle meetings throughout the day when I can. This way, I am forced to get up from my desk and move around. Even if it just adds in extra steps or taking an extra flight or two of stairs — it’s better than looking at the clock and realizing that you’ve been sitting for hours. I also try and plan meetings or meet ups with people that don’t just revolve around sitting and eating or drinking. I’ll invite someone to meet me for a walk and talk, or to take a fitness class together instead of going out to cocktails. There are lots of creative ways to take your meetings or social meet ups on the move.  

TG: How has your personal fitness routine evolved?  

NM: I used to be terrified of lifting weights. I grew up dancing and many of my teachers told me not to do things like squats or lunges because my “thighs would get too big.” I, like many, was under the impression that lifting weights makes you bulky, when in fact, it’s the opposite. Lifting weights helps build lean muscle and can ultimately help burn fat and speed up your metabolism. My gym routine used to consist of “light” weights and cardio, but now, I have switched to a routine that is focused on lifting heavier and working out certain body parts on certain days (for example: I have a back and bicep day, a leg day, a tricep and chest day, etc.) with some cardio and H.I.I.T. mixed in throughout the week. I love the way weightlifting makes me feel, and I love having a routine, so I don’t have to overthink things or waste time thinking, what will I do in the gym today?

TG: Can you share an effective sample workout we can do at home or when we are traveling? 

NM: As much as I love lifting weights, I also love body weight workouts you can do anywhere, no equipment needed! Here’s a quick 20 minute HIIT workout you can do anywhere:

  • Warm up (3 min): Jog in place, air squats, reverse lunge, inchworm out
  • Circuit 1: Do circuit 2x (7.5 min)
    • Side Squat to Reverse Lunge, alternating sides (45 seconds)
    • Rest 15 Seconds
    • Plank Walk Out to Pushup (45 seconds)
    • Rest 15 Seconds
    • Russian Twist (45 seconds)
    • Rest 15 Seconds
    • Jump Squat (30 seconds)
    • Rest 15 seconds
  • Circuit 2: Do circuit 2x (7.5 min)
    • Lateral Lunge to V Squat, alternating sides (45 seconds)
    • Rest 15 Seconds
    • Tricep Pushup (on knees) to 2 shoulder taps (45 seconds)
    • Rest 15 Seconds
    • Crunch to 2 Leg Extension (45 seconds)
    • Rest 15 Seconds
    • Power Squat (30 seconds)
    • Rest 15 seconds
  • Cardio H.I.I.T. finisher (4 min)
    • Mountain Climber (30 seconds)
    • Rest 10 seconds
    • Jumping Jack (30 seconds)
    • Rest 10 Seconds
    • Burpee (30 seconds)
    • Rest 10 Seconds
    • Mountain Climber (30 seconds)
    • Rest 10 seconds
    • Jumping Jack (30 seconds)
    • Rest 10 Seconds
    • Burpee (30 seconds)
  • Cool down and stretch (3 Min)

TG: What are you go-to meals throughout the day?

NM: Breakfast: A smoothie! I don’t usually have time to cook in the morning, so I throw together a smoothie in under five minutes. My typical smoothie consists of six fl oz unsweetened soy milk, one scoop of plant-based protein powder (my go to is the Solgar Spoonfuls Vegan Protein Powder), one scoop of Biohm (a probiotic powder), some fruit, and a small spoonful of peanut butter. This helps ensure that I get a variety of micronutrients and macronutrients to keep me full and satisfied until my next meal, and that my body has enough to refuel post workout. 

For lunch I typically pack a salad with greens, tofu, beans, and whatever veggies I have on hand in the house that week. I try and make sure that I get plenty of protein and fiber to keep me full between meals, and a variety of veggies to make sure I am getting lots of vitamins and minerals. 

With a busy schedule, I rarely have time to snack, so I try and eat more satisfying meals to keep me fueled. When I do snack, I love munching on carrots and hummus, apples and peanut butter, or egg muffins that I make at home with veggies and cheese.

My dinner varies every night, but I have two solid go-tos. The first would be Beyond Meat Burgers (or a veggie burger) with buffalo cauliflower bites and some roasted sweet potato. I love that I can make this dinner in 20 minutes and that it has lots of flavor! My other go-to would be stir fry! It’s so easy because you can use whatever veggies and protein you have on hand and you really can’t go wrong.

During the week, if I am craving something sweet, I usually have a Zevia Rootbeer (no sugar) and some dark chocolate. I find that this totally satisfies my sweet tooth even though it’s low in sugar.

TG: What are some easy food swaps?

NM: I am a big believer in honoring certain cravings. By depriving ourselves too much, we can create an unhealthy relationship with food and ultimately end up causing more damage than if we just had the piece of pizza or whatever we wanted. All that is to say, balance is important, and some simple swaps can come in handy. 

For example, I love making super flavorful pasta sauces, but instead of serving them over pasta, I’ll serve them over zoodles, saving loads of calories and carbohydrates, and sneaking in some extra vitamins and minerals. Shirataki noodles are great for that as well! These are also good swaps for those sensitive to gluten. Another simple food swap is home-popped popcorn instead of potato chips. If you’re craving something crunchy to munch on, I recommend popping your own popcorn on the stove in some avocado oil instead of reaching for the bag of potato chips. This way, you can cut down on sodium and saturated fat, but still get the crunch you’re craving!

TG: What are some ways to avoid snacking/grazing?

NM: The simplest way to avoid snacking and grazing between meals is to make sure you’re eating enough at meals and getting a variety of important nutrients like carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Many times, people try and skimp at meals, or eat too small portions, then end up overeating in between meals. I always tell my clients to “load up on the good stuff” — like veggies, protein, and complex carbs so they feel satisfied and nourished. 

TG: Any solutions for stress eating?

NM: Stress eating is a common, yet super complex issue and can vary based on the individual. From an emotional perspective, it’s natural to want to seek comfort in something that makes you feel good — the way higher carb and higher fat foods can — in moments of stress. From a biological perspective, it also makes sense as stress can rev up your adrenal glands and release cortisol, which can increase appetite. While different solutions may work for different people, I always encourage my clients to practice mindfulness. When you feel the urge to reach for food out of stress, take a few moments to pause and ask yourself some questions like, “What is really bothering me?” or “How am I actively participating in finding a solution to this issue?” or “Am I really hungry?” or “What will actually make me feel better 10 minutes from now?” Maybe even take a few minutes to write down your feelings, take a deep breath, or go for a walk around the block and see how you feel after. Learning how to decipher your body’s real hunger cues and manage stress may take time, and it may be a bit of trial and error, but it will be worth it in the long run. In all of this, it’s important to, as I like to say, “give yourself grace” and not beat yourself up along the way – you’re learning, and it’s a process. 

TG: What are some easy, small things we can do to improve our nutrition?

NM: One easy place to start is to see how you can incorporate just one more fruit or vegetable at each meal. If your typical breakfast is eggs and toast, add some spinach to your eggs, or include a piece of fruit on the side. I like to focus on inclusivity rather than exclusivity to help work towards a healthy relationship with food.  

Another simple way to improve nutrition and help the environment is by reducing/replacing meat or animal protein at meals. Studies have shown many benefits to eating a more plant-forward or vegetarian diet such as reduction risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic inflammatory diseases. Also, by swapping some of the meat for plants, you may help yourself reach important nutrient goals such as fiber and magnesium intake and get more antioxidants in your diet. 

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

NM: At the beginning of the week, I make one massive to-do list – everything that I know I have to do or have due that week. Then, on my calendar I start to assign due dates to each task so I can knock a few things off my list each day rather than feeling like I have to get it all done in one shot. It makes my to-do list more bite-sized and manageable, and I’m able to stay on track as things pop up throughout the week. Having a plan to get it all done helps rather than shooting from the hip. 

TG: Can tech help you with your fitness goals? How?

NM: Even though I am a trainer, I use the SWEAT app to help me keep track of my lifting schedule for the week and get inspiration for programming. Sometimes I spend so much time programming other workouts that when it comes to my own, I don’t have time to think about it, so fitness apps definitely help with that. I also think that fitness apps can make fitness more accessible and easier to do. For example, if you only have 30 minutes to work out in the morning, you can just turn your app on and work out for 30 minutes and be done. If you had to pack a bag and drive to and from the gym,  you’re looking at much more time. Fitness apps really help get your workouts in. I have also found that many folks who may find it intimidating to go to a gym or a group exercise class can start with at-home workouts via apps, then build up their confidence to workout anywhere.  

TG: How do you stay focused?

NM: I think that when it comes to staying focused it’s important to find a balance between being inspired by others, but also knowing when to put the blinders on and trust your own gut and your own timing. I have found that the times that I lose focus are the times that I am comparing myself too much to others and trying to mimic their path, rather than staying my course. It’s important to trust that as long as you keep putting in the work, things will come in their due time, and that you can’t rush the process. In all of this, I think it’s important to have a long term vision – not just a goal – for yourself. When I say vision, I like to think more of what type of person I want to be and what type of life do I want to live, rather than what job title do I want to have by age 35. I think visions are powerful and that if you keep sight of that vision daily, your actions will start to follow and set you on the path of where you need to go.  

TG: How do you keep technology from taking over your life? Do you set up tech boundaries?

NM: Having a business and being in an industry that pretty much requires a social media presence can make it super difficult to balance time on and off of tech. One thing that has helped me these past few months is setting an Instagram timer on my phone. I had a rude awakening when I upgraded my phone and checked my screen time tracker and saw how much time I was spending (mostly wasting) on Instagram each day. Now I have a timer set to bring an awareness to the time I spend on social media and to help me to stay productive when I use the app rather than mindlessly scrolling through. I have also made a rule that I don’t check my social until I have done the first few parts of my routine in the morning to ensure that I don’t get sidetracked in the morning. 

TG: How do you stay hydrated? 

NM: It sounds silly, but I always have water within an arm’s reach, and in a water bottle that I enjoy drinking out of. I love drinking out of straws, so I always keep a water bottle on my desk that has a straw because I know I’ll drink out of it. If I am constantly having to twist a cap on and off, I know I won’t drink water. It’s just something little that I’ve found works for me.

TG: When you are traveling, do you have any small tips or tricks to move your body on a plane, or if you are on a business trip?

NM: I travel a ton for work, so I have had to find ways to stay active while away from home. Staying active on a plane can be difficult, but I do try and practice good posture while I sit and also do small seated or standing stretches throughout the course of a flight. If I can help it, I try and make sure I have time to work out before a flight, so I am guaranteed to get some movement in that day. I have also learned to adapt any workout to use either free weights or just body weight, because you never know what type of gym/equipment you’ll be getting at a hotel. Fitness apps can also be super helpful when traveling. There are many — like Daily Burn — that offer workouts that can be done in a small space and with no equipment. I try and apply the same rule – get my workout in first thing in the morning – when I travel for business because schedules constantly change when you’re on the road. You could plan to workout at 5 p.m., then a client invites you to a dinner, or a meeting runs over, and your whole workout for the day can be blown. 

TG: How do you sleep? What is your winddown routine?

NM: Sleep is a top priority for me, so I always make sure that I allow myself at least seven to eight  hours a night. I try and have dinner at least two to three hours before bedtime to allow myself time to digest. I also factor my sleep time into food fasting time, since it’s important to let our digestive system and endocrine system rest as well. I aim to keep 13 hours between dinner and breakfast, since studies have shown that fasting for this length of time could improve metabolic factors.  In terms of a routine, taking a shower to wash off the day and let my mind quiet down before bed really helps. After my shower, I usually put on an overnight face moisturizer and use some of my Aromatherapy Associates products, like the Muscle Destress gel to help my body relax and signal to my brain that it’s time to go to bed. I try my best to stay off social media and any of my news or email apps at least an hour before bed, not only to reduce exposure to blue light, but also to keep my mind from racing with to-dos or anxiety.  

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