Health and Fitness

Medically damaging, life-shortening excess weight is epidemic in the U.S. If you've followed this column for a few years, you know the solutions: fewer calories and more exercise. You know how and why to change your diet and exercise regimens, and how to free up time to make those changes. What we haven't discussed here is the classic diet vs. exercise dilemma: which one provides more important, effective weight and health management? Which is the first ingredient listed on the fountain of youth nutrition label, diet (your eating habits, not some canned or printed "Diet" named after the latest guru) or exercise?

Of course, the best approach is obvious: a good, sound, 24/7 eating routine plus a few hours of hard aerobic and strength-building exercises several days each week. Most of the people who achieve this found exercise they love (kids from 4 to 104 call it play) and modified their lifestyles, often even their careers, to allow or even involve their play. Few people are willing to go this far, though; the rest do nothing or compromise with a mixed bag of lifestyle changes. But where do we start?

Many overweight people coast for much of the year, then diet to lose weight for events, such as a reunion, their wedding, or bikini season. Bad idea, on several counts:

  • They're still laying down damage most of the year.
  • Rapid weight loss by calorie deprivation lowers our metabolism, making it even tougher to keep the weight off.
  • Calorie deprivation makes us hungry (exercise doesn't increase appetite

    much) and dooms us to relapses.

  • Our bodies "remember" weight yo-yos and fight each year's bikini blitz a little harder.
  • Quick, early weight loss with most diets, such as the low-carb fad, is primarily water loss, not likely to last through the honeymoon, let alone the whole bikini season. It lets the remaining excess fat continue to do harm, and may do its own damage.
  • They're still couch potatoes under the skin. Lookin' good once a year is just a band-aid on a sprained ankle, a fancy wrapping on a brown Christmas necktie. While it may soothe one's vanity for a party or a season, it does little for health or longevity. Sedentary thin people are not necessarily healthy.
  • Calorie -- especially carb -- deprivation, whether for a week while carb-depriving for a marathon, for a bikini season, or for a whole tortured life, leaves us hungry and grouchy.
  • Starvation is for runway models, whose shapes turn most guys' stomachs, not their heads.

Diet alone can shed weight, but the ketosis induced by starvation diets in general or rigorous low-carb diets in particular can consume muscle and ultimately even vital organ tissue. (For a visual image of ketosis carried to extremes, think "concentration camps".) People relying on diet alone for weight control, especially if they've ever been overweight, are just a binge away from a fat attack and are generally less healthy and shorter-lived than lifelong exercisers. Dieting is just too freakin' hard, takes too much discipline, is no fun, and lacks the instant gratification our culture demands, to work for many people.

Exercise, however, whether a stroll around the block, a gut-busting gym session, or sports (the ones you do, guys, not the ones you watch), does provide instant gratification if we choose exercises we enjoy. It also improves our health, increases our metabolism to burn fat 24/7, clears the cobwebs, relieves stress, improves sleep, makes us look and feel much better short and long term, improves self-esteem, and improves both the quality and length of our lives. Most successful weight management programs include plenty of exercise along with a healthy eating regimen.

This is supported, for example, by a study of nearly 2,000 rural northern Rocky Mountain men and women to identify any relationships between obesity and lifestyle. 70% of the men and 59% of the women were overweight or downright obese, as defined by their BMIs, a widely used formula related to belly size proportion. Obesity increased with both diet and exercise factors, including soda pop consumption, large food portions, eating while doing other activities, television watching, less physical activity, and even the perception of insufficient exercise. This mix of apparent causes indicates a mix of solutions, not just diet or exercise, is in order.

Lifelong exercise is the closest we have found to a fountain of youth. It has a huge positive impact on almost every aspect of our lives. It's important to identify, prioritize, and follow a sound exercise program which avoids inefficient or harmful exercises and overtraining and provides some intrinsic motivation. Some physical trainers estimate exercise to be 80% of weight management, in both time and effort.

Which type of prolonged, calorie-burning exercise -- aerobic or anaerobic -- will improve your weight and health more depends significantly on your muscle fiber makeup. Aerobic exercise, such as jogging, swimming, dancing, or brisk walking, in which the objective is moderate activity over longer periods, is best suited to people with mostly slow twitch muscle fibers. If you never were much at jumping or sprinting, but could play or hike moderately for hours, your muscle makeup is likely to be made up mostly of slow twitch muscle fiber. Those who favored sprinting and jumping as a kid, yet tired quickly when asked to run or swim distances, are likely to have predominantly fast twitch muscle fibers, and may favor explosive sports such as basketball or tennis. Each type will likely respond best in performance, tolerance, motivation, and results to activities best suited to his own inborn, permanent muscle fiber makeup. Both types also need strength-building workouts.

There's no reason working out has to be grueling. People who think "sports" is something one watches on TV rather than something one does will benefit far more from a little activity than from clicking a remote. Every time you breathe, lift, and/or sweat a little more (not counting hotter weather) than usual - and live -- you get a little stronger and leaner. This long, slow approach to increased fitness promotes significantly greater health than binge exercising, crash dieting, or watching others exercise on TV. Its ratio of benefits to perceived effort is great, and one of those benefits is sometimes a snowball effect leading to a long, vigorous, active life.

It may not be too late to give your young children a giant head start in avoiding this entire weight problem. Prevention of a lifetime burdened and shortened by weight problems often starts with parental development and enforcement of their children's proper eating habits from infancy through high school. If that didn't sink in, try this: fat kids are their parents' fault. Parents - or the caretakers many so-called "parents" delegate their parenting to - determine the eating habits and often the lifetime weight tendencies of their preschoolers. The CDC says a third of today's preschoolers -- more like half for African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans -- will develop diabetes because of their excess weight. (If you think diabetes is merely a curable nuisance, feed Google this string: diabetes feet eyes.) It's gotten so bad that, for the first time in modern history, your preschoolers' life expectancies are shorter than yours. Get it? We're killing our kids.

Children and parents may label excess weight a "weight problem", but in actuality it starts as an eating problem. Sitting in a high chair or in front of a screen all day doesn't make kids fat; it's all that eating while sitting there that makes them fat. Admitting this early focuses attention and corrective efforts on the real culprit: eating habits. (But don't bring your kids up on a low-carb diet unless they are forced into it by diagnosed Type I diabetes. Talk about setting a lifetime eating habit doomed to hamper their sports and shorten their lives!) Your kid's got to play very hard for several hours to work off that ice cream cone you gave him to shut him up, and its saturated fat still adds to his arterial plaque. And whether your kid is fat or not, you should encourage physical play as soon as she's old enough for it.

The bottom line is that to really save time in your weight management program, stop eating the wrong food and eat plenty of good food to avoid putting the weight on in the first place. It takes hours of hard exercise to burn off wrong foods eaten in just minutes. Then add exercise to get healthy, rather than simply lean. And watch those strained Twinkies during those first few years; you just might avoid the whole weight thing altogether.

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