Individual Practicality, Balance and Sustainability

April 28, 2015 in Psychology of Food, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

During this past week I was reading an article that explained that for weight loss, exercise was not very effective. I don’t remember where I was reading when I felt the flood of frustration wash over me. I’m not contending that the statement was incorrect; my frustration is grounded in the fact that, although the actual calorie benefit for exercise is not as large as for cutting caloric intake, exercise has benefits beyond weight loss (and I’ll discuss that below).

There are so many things we know that we can/should do to be healthier (like eating more vegetables and fruit; eating less processed and restaurant food; sitting less; and so on); but the fact is that we only have so much time, interest, willpower, or energy to do them. So any diet or exercise regimen that you can’t embrace for the long-term is clearly not a good choice. We may want to consider asking ourselves; “What’s the point of doing a certain diet or exercise if it can’t be maintained long-term?”

I’ll share an example that was just related to me this past week. My husband is in Boston on business; and a business partner explained his experience. He went to a famous name diet center to lose weight. He, being a friendly and outgoing guy, got into conversations with the others that were there. He learned that most all of the people had gone through the program multiple times. They lose weight and then come back and do the whole process, over, and over and over. You have to wonder how healthy that is; are they lowering their metabolic rate? In my experience, many people believe that if they lose the weigh that they will not gain it back; so they’re willing to endure almost anything during a weight loss phase. But the fact is that if we really want to be healthier, we need to find a balance that fits our life and ourselves as individuals – we need to discover what’s practical for us.

It’s a fact, you can lose weight many different ways; but the key is that the best way to lose weight is something that you can adhere to. I’d like to extend the researchers’ conclusion that you can lose weight many different ways, to the conclusion that making changes that you can and will permanently adhere to is the holy grail. Because once you go back to previous habits, of course, you regain the weight. Why not consider designing your own health care plan? Why not design something that works for you and not go through a painful weight loss phase only to regain it?

Although calorie expenditure through exercise is relatively small, exercise is critical to your health. Let me clarify a bit. Just keeping our body alive, that is, our resting metabolic rate is where most of what we eat goes. There are also some calories that go toward small movements, like fidgeting and the process of digesting food; and close to 10% additional calories for regular routines of the day. So it takes a thousand, plus calories to keep your body alive and barely moving, adding exercise only adds a few hundred calories. (Calculate your actual Resting Daily Energy Expenditure, using the Katch-McArdle Formula) Knowing this, you might say, “Why bother to exercise?”

One answer to “Why bother?” is nicely covered in the April 2015 Tufts University’s Health & Nutrition Letter; Activity Benefits Go Beyond Weight Loss. The article quotes Miriam E. Nelson, PhD. She says; “Get your heart rate up, use your muscles and expend more energy. A regular exercise routine protects your heart, increases bone density, ups your energy level, retards the muscle atrophy and creeping frailty that occur as we age, and is crucial for weight control.” I think that when she says, “crucial for weight control” she is probably referring to the fact that building muscle mass has the side benefit of helping to sustain a higher metabolic rate. We don’t want that to slip any lower than it is. So that’s another reason to exercise; building muscle creates the asset of burning more calories while resting – that’s a valuable asset. Also exercise helps many of us control appetite.

Data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study showed that those classified as “inactive” (sedentary job with no leisure-time activity) were followed for 12.4 years and found to have 20 to 30% higher mortality than the moderately inactive group. All it took was a brisk 20-minute walk (burning about 90 to 110 calories) a day to make the change from inactive to moderately inactive and reap the lower mortality rate benefits. Although the study found that just 20 minutes would make a difference, we should strive to do at least 150 minutes a week (2 hours and 30 minutes – notice that’s only 10 minutes more a week) of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (or a combination of both).

The real take-away lesson is to do what you can. Find some way to fit physical activity into your life. I love the saying of a neighbor and physician, “You only need to exercise on the days you eat.” Practically, reigns, however. If you aren’t already exercising, find small ways to fit it in. Certainly, reaping the benefits of a big drop in risk is worth a 20-minute walk. Right? Start with what’s practical for you.

The fact is that spending time in the kitchen; prepping vegetables is a faster payoff for weight loss than going to the gym. But for real health, you need both. I like a quote that I once heard from a weight-loss guru. He pointed out that we don’t get an endorphin rush from chopping vegetables. But if weight is a primary concern, we should never ditch the kitchen in order to find the time to exercise. His recommendation is to take the amount of time you’re willing to spend exercising and formally dedicate at least a third of that to the kitchen. And one of the best bits of advice was to ask ourselves “could I live like this forever?” and if the answer is “no,” then something needs to be changed. Some of his other hints include: “Doing less exercise consistently is better than doing more intermittently.” And my favorite, “The most successful people are those who embrace both consistency and imperfection.” Accepting imperfection in ourselves allows us to keep designing and remodeling new health behaviors and not give up because of our lack of perfection.

Seeing weight management as a change in lifestyle is the long-term answer to health. Why not start with the low hanging fruit – the easy ‘pickins’?

  • Slow down on extra helpings
  • Slightly decrease portion size
  • Increase vegetable portions and intake frequency
  • Eat less junk food
  • Cut down or cut out sweetened soda pop; change to diet drinks or water
  • Limit alcohol – try cutting back slowly
  • Eat fewer French fries or fast food
  • Pack one lunch a week; then move to two and so on.
  • Incorporate as much exercise as practical

What we eat provides both energy and nutrients; so we know that what we eat nourishes us and helps to keep us healthy. But let’s not forget that health is also gained by moving our bodies. Practicality and balance are truly the answer; and the answer that’s all about sustainability.