Fit for Life

It’s March, and for most people, their New Year’s resolution to live a healthier lifestyle has fallen by the wayside.

It’s March, and for most people, their New Year’s resolution to live a healthier lifestyle has fallen by the wayside. Good intentions are not sufficient to sustain the majority of people in their quest to maintain an optimal lifestyle as work, family obligations and hectic schedules undermine the New Year’s promise to lose weight and become more fit.

Yes, starting and maintaining a regular exercise routine and healthy diet is difficult for most. The rates of obesity and overweight people in the United States confirm this.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates more than 37 percent of Americans are obese and more than 67 percent are overweight. Being overweight increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and certain cancers. It is also very expensive. The CDC estimates obesity has an economic price tag of $175 billion annually. This equates to an extra $1,750 per person compared to someone of normal weight.

The only way to lose weight and increase fitness is to consume a healthy diet and exercise regularly. There is not, and never will be, a magic pill or medical procedure that can accomplish this. Also, there is no easy or fast method to lose weight and increase your fitness, despite the marketing efforts of wellness companies promising fast results with minimal effort. What most people fail to realize is that losing weight and improving your health requires a lifestyle change. The focus must be on improving diet and increasing the amount of regular exercise in a way that is both enjoyable and sustainable, which requires a program.

The first step should be getting qualified help from a wellness professional. Many people fail because they get injured or receive the wrong information. Always get physical and medical clearance from your physician before beginning a new exercise routine.

The following recommendations on exercise and nutrition are obtained from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Institute of Health (NHI) and the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR). Research from the NIH on obesity demonstrated that a combination of diet and exercise were necessary to both lose and maintain weight loss. Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30, while overweight is defined as having a BMI of 25 or more. One pound of stored body fat contains 3,500 calories of stored energy. Therefore, losing weight and maintaining weight loss takes time. The NIH recommends a weight loss rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week.

Proper diet is front and center in the effort to lose weight. The standard American diet is a primary reason many Americans are overweight and suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes. High in empty calories like fat and processed foods high in sugar, these foods are low in micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Being overweight and undernourished is the paradox in which many Americans find themselves. The AICR has a dietary plan that is effective for weight loss as well as reducing the risk of chronic conditions, such as hypertension and heart disease. Called the New American Plate, this plan recommends a whole food, plant based, nutrient-dense and high-fiber diet. It does not require herculean willpower to follow and is both delicious and sustainable. 

Exercise is also crucial in the battle to lose weight and improve overall health and fitness, and there are several categories. The first is cardiovascular, or aerobic exercise. The definition of aerobic exercise is continuous and rhythmic movement utilizing large muscle groups. Examples include walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and taking classes such as Zumba. Benefits include reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, as well as improved blood pressure, cholesterol, mood and energy. Weight bearing exercises like walking and running also improve bone density. Weight loss is also a benefit of aerobic exercise, which occurs in two ways. 

First, aerobic exercise burns more calories and thus helps in creating the caloric deficit required for weight loss. Second, as your fitness levels improve, your body becomes better at utilizing stored fat for energy. 

The prescription for aerobic exercise per the ACSM uses the FITT principle –– frequency, intensity, type and time. Frequency is five or more times per week, seven if the goal is weight loss. Intensity can be defined objectively using the Karvonen formula to calculate your target heart rate range, or subjectively using perceived exertion. For beginners, perceived exertion is a simple method to determine exercise intensity as aerobic exercise should feel “somewhat challenging” but not so difficult that you cannot complete a sentence (out of breath).

The time or duration of exercise should be 30 minutes or more per day and can be broken up in two 15 minute segments or even three 10 minute segments. The type of exercise as noted previously could be walking, jogging or swimming and should be appropriate based on your medical history. For example, if you suffer from arthritis of the knees, your exercise should be low impact –– jogging would be contraindicated. Cross training (e.g. cycling and swimming) is an excellent way to alleviate boredom as well as reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

The second type of exercise crucial to weight loss and total body fitness is strength training. Examples include weight lifting (free weights and/or machines), calisthenics (push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups), Pilates and Power Yoga. Benefits of strength training include improved bone density, improved orthopedic issues such as arthritis and back pain, reduced risk of or improved diabetes, improved cholesterol and, of course, increased strength. Weight loss is also a benefit, as increased muscle mass will increase your metabolism (the number of calories you burn at rest). Strength training is the best type of exercise at reversing the effects of aging. Bone loss (osteoporosis), muscle loss (sarcopenia) and lower metabolism combine to create a condition in the elderly called “frailty” where mobility, balance, and ultimately, independence are significantly compromised. 

The ACSM recommends strength training at least two days per week. Your routine should focus on large muscle groups and compound (multiple joint) movements such as squats, cable rows and push-ups. This is where qualified exercise physiologists can be helpful as they can assist you in designing a program based on your current fitness level and medical history.   

The final type of exercise is simple –– be active. The CDC recently reported that being sedentary, defined as taking less than 10,000 steps per day, is as bad for you as smoking. “Sitting is the new smoking,” states Dr. James Levine at the Mayo Clinic Arizona State. The best advice is to purchase a valid and reliable fitness tracker and work up to taking 10,000 or more steps per day. 

Finally, it is important to discuss the reality that most people who lose weight end up gaining it back again. The reasons are beyond the scope of this article but there are metabolic consequences to losing weight, as the Biggest Loser follow-up study demonstrated. But it is possible to maintain weight loss long term, as the National Weight Loss Control Registry  study proved. Participants in the study have lost an average of 70 pounds and maintained this loss for more than five years. The purpose of the study is to determine common variables for people successful at maintain their lost weight. The result? You guessed it! Eating a low fat, high fiber diet, exercising an average of seven days per week, and walking for 10,000 steps per day were the common denominator. It’s all in your lifestyle.

Paul Lomas, who earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise Physiology and associate degree in Physical Therapy, is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He has 30 years experience in physical therapy, cardiac rehabilitation, weight management, risk intervention and corporate medicine.