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March 1999 Issue
The Best Way to Lose Weight and Get in Shape
by Michael Fick
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"Losing weight and shaping up" is an admirable goal, but there's more to it than just "goin' on a diet and gettin' some exercise". That approach, without sufficient knowledge, can be ineffective, inefficient and even harmful. A much better way, believe it or not, is to find a comfortable chair and spend many hours sitting still in it -- just like you're doing now. The catch? You must read while sitting there -- just like you're doing now. Knowledge lets us choose a personal health program that safely achieves greater benefit, sooner and cheaper, both short and long term, than we'd see by just jumping on the first infomercial product that comes along.

Questions I see every day on internet fitness, diet, and medical forums demonstrate that many people with the right goals have an alarming lack of knowledge of the basics of nutrition, exercise, and health. It's obvious that many people don't read anything but Sitcom Digest or Popular Tablecloths. You readers are on the right track.

Whether trying to lose inches and pounds (for the overweight) or gain them (for Ally McBeal or a body builder), some basic knowledge of nutrition and exercise physiology will make the process safer and quicker. People who want to lose 30 pounds before their reunion next month or plan to buy an ab machine to produce rippled abs should sit in that chair, read more, and rethink those goals. (And, Calista, put some meat on those bones before you blow away!)

Any goal should trigger three questions:

  1. Is this the right goal?
  2. How can I achieve it?
  3. What are the costs, including possible downsides?
Each of those questions should trigger many secondary questions.

Simple example. Goal: lose weight. A few of the many questions raised by that goal include:

  1. Is this the right goal?
    Am I overweight? (Hint: define "overweight" first.) What's my body fat percentage?  What's my Body Mass Index? Maybe most important: how do I look in the mirror? Can I do all the gardening or mountain climbing I want to do? What does my doctor say about my weight? Is the doctor an idiot? (A roly-poly friend's doctor said her weight was fine at 170 and 5'1". Now she has self-induced type II diabetes.) What do my friends say about my weight? Can I walk briskly uphill while talking in full sentences? Do I want to add years of healthy living to my life? Those, and a few dozen more questions, will help answer Question #1.

  2. How can I achieve it?
    How does one lose weight? How do I slim my thighs, develop rippled abs, shed 50 pounds, or lose a chin or two? What do/don't we eat to speed up our metabolism? What gadgets help lose weight? MUST I exercise? (Real simple, real blunt: hell, yes, if you want to expect a long and healthy life.) Must exercise be boring, repetitive, or exhausting? (No.) Those, and scores of other questions will answer #2.

  3. What are the costs, including possible downsides?
    Dollars? Hours per day/week/year? Sweat? Effort? (Yes.) Pain? (No.) Interference with other activities? Risks of overdoing it? Special foods and supplements? Harm from ridiculous diets, exercises, supplements, or machines?
The questions go on and on and on, even if you want only to lose some obvious flab and stop getting out of breath when you get off the couch to look for the remote. If you want to look and feel like an athlete half your age, you can multiply the "on and on and on" by 10. Several hours in that chair, identifying and answering the questions pertinent to your goal, can avert wasted effort, time, money, and even harm.

Significantly overweight/inactive people have three options:

  1. Forget the whole idea because they haven't the time to study all that stuff;
  2. cut their sat fat intake to 5-8 grams a day and get some aerobic exercise;
  3. read some books, overhaul their diet, and start exercising -- play, working out and/or labor, as preferred -- a few hours a week.
(Unspecified option 4 is for serious, competitive athletes, whose knowledge should be WAY beyond this column.) More about the first three options:
  • Option 1. Statistically speaking, you haven't the time not to select option 2 or 3. The quality and quantity of time that option 2 or 3 will add to your life will easily exceed the time spent in research and exercise. Option 1 is not an option!

  • Option 2. Simply reducing sat fat intake and adding some modest regular exercise will noticeably improve both how you feel and look and how long you feel and look. Almost the only reading necessary here is food labels and a basic book at the general level of this column's usual contents.

  • Option 3. Whether you want just to dramatically improve your health, to achieve a whole 'nuther order of magnitude of feeling and looking better longer, or want to play and eat and look and feel like a race horse until your genes put you out to pasture, the magic door is #3. Even #3 requires just reading a book on nutrition and a book on exercise, then putting their knowledge into play. Only after understanding how our bodies react to nutrients and exercise can we design, or intelligently buy, eating and exercise plans.

Your first nutrition book should be a generic one, such as those from a major hospital or university rather than some guru hyping a specific diet to cure disease or take off weight. It should discuss foods and individual nutrients and their effects on the body, not just list recipes. (That comes later if you wish.) One good example among many is "Total Nutrition: The Only Guide You'll Ever Need", from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, published by St. Martin's Griffin in paperback.

Your first exercise book should discuss aerobic and anaerobic exercise and their effects on the body, not just list exercise routines or concentrate on aerobics or weight lifting. We need facts and principles, not just canned workout programs. 

Reading selected chapters from those two big books (a nutrition book can easily hit 800 pages ... but can change your life) can save you tens of thousands of wasted crunches, thousands of dollars in wrong equipment, hundreds of pounds lost and regained, hundreds of dollars in pills and liquids, and thousands of hours of unnecessary hunger.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study shows that the people most likely to suffer heart attacks and cancer are those with the least knowledge of healthful habits. Sound innocuous? Maybe not; it was released in their December 1 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports.

Oops, I also promised you wealth. Simple: read 30 generic investment books and magazine articles. Your inescapable, hands-down solo conclusion will be: The simplest, surest single way to get rich is to invest in mutual funds via dollar-cost-averaging, beginning tomorrow. As long as you are not forced to sell during the occasional market dips, no other investment consistently comes anywhere close in the long haul. The price of a movie and popcorn each week for a family of four, invested in an index fund, will buy a 3,000 square foot custom home on an acre -- plus a pair of new Cadillacs -- in 30 years.

But don't take my word for it.

Read.



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