Maintaining a healthy weight may be the single best thing we can do for our health. Carrying extra pounds, together with our typically poor diets and low activity levels, is associated with the most prevalent killer diseases of our society. It also causes unnecessary damage to our joints and connective tissues. Fortunately, several positive steps toward good health go hand-in-hand with weight control: keeping fit, developing good postural habits, and putting good food in our bodies. These will go a very long way toward reducing diseases such as:
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Type II diabetes
- Digestive problems
- Immune system weaknesses
Those problems are not caused by a deficiency of pharmaceuticals. To a great extent, they come from the choices we make and the patterns we have developed.
But It’s Hard to Get Started
It sounds so simple, and yet, making lifestyle changes is one of the hardest things do to. I know it for myself. I see it with my patients. And I know that both doctors and patients are complicit in gravitating toward the illusion of an easy fix: take a pill (or maybe ten). As an acupuncturist, I’m lucky to have patients who are typically more averse to fixing problems with drugs and are more eager to take on a solution they can implement themselves. But that doesn’t make it easy.
Getting fit, losing fat, and eating well don’t come from following the latest diet fad, taking a new pill or buying the miracle device you saw on an infomercial. Those things sell like crazy because we are mesmerized by the possibility of obtaining our goals without actually changing our lives – if we would only buy the latest thing, the hard work will be done for us. The vendors know this, and prey upon this universal weakness in human nature.
Bad diets affect our brain chemistry (among other things) and make it really hard to change our patterns. I suspect that sugar, and sugar-fat combinations, are as addictive as narcotics. (I’ve had firsthand experience with doughnuts and ice cream, but not the narcotics, so I can’t say for sure). If you’re overweight, you’re also probably not very fit; the prospect of exercising is so overwhelming, and the first attempts at the gym are so depressing, that the best avenue seems to be watching a re-run of “Lost” with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. There’s comfort in knowing that most of the people around you aren’t doing any better.
Good News: Success Begets Success
The good news is that once you get started down a healthier path, the benefits multiply and are self-reinforcing. Your body craves real food, and is satisfied by it. It wants to be lean and strong, and it will love the exercise that makes it that way. You don’t have to count calories (or anything else, really). You don’t have to be on a restrictive diet. Most people can eat all they want of “real” food – meaning most anything in the produce department, whole grains, and some canned vegetables. And it doesn’t take much longer to prepare a meal from these ingredients than it takes to microwave nutrient-free, processed junk or drive to your favorite heart-stopping fast-food vendor.
Similarly, it doesn’t take hours a week in a gym to get amazing results. In fact, a lot of the exercise that people do in the hopes of losing weight is a waste of time. Some will find they can spend less time exercising than they do now and yet finally make progress. Change does take work and dedication but you can see good results with just 60 – 75 minutes a week (not a day!) of suitable exercise. The trick is an appropriate level of intensity. If your routine allows you to chat freely with your friends or focus on the cover story in “O” magazine, you aren’t exercising hard enough to be worth your while. But don’t worry about not being in good enough shape to start. A good system will demand the right amount of exertion for your body, but be safe and appropriate for any age or level of conditioning.
The Key: Good Food in Moderate Quantities and a Strategic Exercise Program
Your focus should be on fat loss, good nutrition and healthy exercise leading to a strong, fit body that is resistant to illness and injury. To accomplish this, you need to combine a sound diet full of unprocessed natural foods together with a properly designed exercise program that stimulates the necessary hormonal and metabolic response in your body. Both aspects are important if you want to succeed, and the combination can make positive changes remarkably fast.
You’ll feel your strength increasing in a couple of weeks. As you eliminate junk from your diet, you’ll find your cravings for them also diminish very rapidly. Your weight may not drop like a rock, because you’ll be adding muscle as you lose fat. But there’s really good news here too: fat is twice as bulky as muscle, so you’ll see big changes in your measurements and body shape even if your weight decreases slowly; muscle burns calories day and night, so the stronger you get the faster the fat will be burned up; and as you gain strength and fitness, you’ll enjoy your favorite activities more and more, with less fatigue and less chance of injury.
Finding a Good System to Follow
So, how to get started? Where can you find good guidance about healthy approaches to diet and exercise? Free information abounds, but putting it all together can be overwhelming. Getting the inspiration to start and to work through the occasional tough times can be hardest of all. One good study found that of numerous dieting systems, Weight Watchers had the highest success rates. However, that was because of the interaction and encouragement from other members, rather than any special trait of the plan or the food. When evaluating a plan, you want sound nutritional and exercise advice, combined with some kind of support system.
Watch out for these red flags:
- · Promises of results with little or no effort
- · A focus on pills, drinks or supplements
- · Special diets
- · Proprietary pre-packaged meals
- · Special exercise equipment
- · Recurring fees
What a program should offer:
- · Sound nutritional advice with a focus on a well-rounded variety of healthy, unprocessed foods you can buy in the grocery store
- · Tips on meal plans and recipes are a bonus, but you want to learn how to change your eating habits, not get a strict menu to follow
- · Guidelines for safe, effective, efficient exercise that can be adjusted/scaled for a wide range of ages and physical conditions
- · Specific exercises that focus on major muscle groups and require minimal, standard equipment
- · An ongoing support system, such as an online help desk, ongoing newsletters and/or a discussion group
- · Reasonably priced
Want some specific suggestions? Learn about two responsible, affordable programs that work:
in my companion article: Dieting Doesn’t Work – Here Are Two Plans that Do.