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Thursday, March 21 , 2019, 3:12 pm | Mostly Cloudy 57º


Tam Hunt: How to Lose Weight and Feel Great

[Author's note: This is the first in an occasional series about weight loss and fitness.]

Losing weight is really hard. Losing weight is really easy.

Both of these statements are true.

It is really hard to voluntarily restrain yourself from eating what you love and/or to work out if you’re not used to strenuous physical activity. And it’s even harder to do this on a sustained basis over the years.

That said, however, it’s not that hard to lose weight and feel great about your fitness and lifestyle if you approach the task mentally prepared and well-informed.

This is becoming an increasingly important issue for Americans. A recent study found that we are getting fatter and fatter, with nearly 40 percent (!) of adults obese now, up from 34 percent in 2008. (A body mass index, or BMI, over 30 is considered obese and over 40 severely obese.)

A combination of better diet and more exercise are the obvious antidotes to this growing epidemic. You can stress one or the other more, but my view is that both are equally important to long-term health.

I’ve been pretty active my whole life, wrestling and running cross-country in high school, doing a stint in the Army for four years from ages 19 to 23 where I was consistently the highest scorer in my unit on the regular “PT tests” we had to take (a combination of push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run), and becoming a lifelong runner and racket sports player after leaving the Army.

I just finished my first Olympic-distance triathlon and did fairly well for my age group.

In short, I’m moderately athletic but far from being remarkable in my athleticism or in the time I spend trying to stay in shape. Where I feel like I have achieved some degree of long-term success is learning how to maintain my weight in the range I like and to deal with the inevitable injuries that come from being active.

A couple of years ago, I decided, at 45, that I wanted to try to get back into the best shape of my life, which was when I was 23 and leaving the Army. I had run a marathon and completed a bunch of different Army competitions at that age. And I looked and felt great. My goal was to see if middle-age me couldn’t get back into that kind of shape.

I’ve always been in decent shape, but I was, at the time I set my new ambitious goal, 10 to 15 pounds heavier than I had been in my early 20s, and a whole lot slower and weaker. I had gotten a bit heavier than I liked to be, and I needed to get more serious about my diet and exercise to get back to my 23-year-old self.

Fast forward about two years and I have, in fact, lost 15 pounds and am now lighter than I have been since my late teens. As importantly, I have kept the weight off for a year now. I am on my way to getting back to my run times from my early 20s. I’m not back yet to my strength in my early 20s, but I’m convinced I can get there.

What I’m getting at is that we can maintain lifelong fitness and performance if we make a sustained effort and learn some good tools and tips. I’ll share a few of my insights here, focusing on the two sides of the weight-loss coin: diet and exercise.

First, let’s talk about the way almost all weight-loss efforts unfold. The phases of weight loss and better health are, in my experience during the past 20 or so years, as follows:

» As you begin your changes in diet and start to exercise more, your tummy gets smaller and you feel like you’ve lost some weight. This is an illusion. You haven’t lost any fat or gained any muscle; all you’ve done is let your stomach deflate a little by eating less than you normally do and/or working out more.

» As you keep going, you start to lose some real weight and you feel great because you’re proud of taking control of your own destiny. You have conquered your own passions. And you will very likely relax at this point and put right back on the weight you lost and maybe even gain more back than you lost.

» You soon get back on track and start to see sustained weight loss because you have successfully found a new lifestyle that isn’t too different from your old lifestyle — because most of us can’t change that much and stick to those changes. Yes, we can change a lot over time, but most changes have to be incremental in order to stick.

» As you settle in to your new lifestyle, new look and new health, you’ll need to steadily monitor yourself and adjust your diet and exercise to maintain the physique and fitness that you want to age with.

In the rest of this piece, I’ll describe a three-step plan that has worked for me and I think will work for most other people, too.

The first step is to assess honestly what kind of will power you have. Are you the kind of person who enjoys large challenges, climbing mountains, starting new careers, reading very long books, etc.? Or are you the kind of person who dreads things that rock the boat, that change routine, or that take you away from perfect equanimity?

I start here because if you have been eating a poor diet and don’t work out much or not at all, and you decide you want to dive in to an entirely new lifestyle, you’re almost certainly going to fail before long.

I strongly recommend starting with small changes and assessing how your body and your psyche responds — then adjust accordingly. For example, if you start by eating a nutritious smoothie for breakfast or lunch, rather than the usual meals, a few times a week, and you find this to be easy and fulfilling, then expand this to six days a week. Or if you find it difficult to stick with even a smoothie instead of a full meal a few days a week, dial it back to just two days a week.

The key is to honestly assess your level of will power and then create an achievable plan to build confidence for long-term change.

Second, create a plan. Here’s the bottom line for weight loss and long-term health: Eat good food and exercise more.

I won’t go into much detail in this piece about what particular diet or exercise plan you should follow. There’s a ton of conflicting science and advice in this area. I will delve into these issues more in the next part of this series.

For now, I will, just as an example, focus on the method that has worked for me and that I find fulfilling: a “plant-centric,” low-carb diet. This allows some meat and dairy, and also some carbs, but your diet should consist mostly of plants, legumes and nuts. It’s surprising how much delicious food fit these criteria. And the great thing about this approach is that you don’t need to deny yourself an occasional hamburger or fish filet. Just eat these things sparingly.

Limiting alcohol intake is a great way to easily reduce calories. And I strongly recommend, if you haven’t already, completely phasing out soda and pure fruit juices (they both have way too much concentrated sugar).

Again, phase your changes in cautiously. Start with a one-week plan and stick to it. Then assess how well you did. Did you cheat much? At all? Did you feel good? Adjust accordingly.

Then, try a one-month plan. Assess. Maybe build in a couple of allowed cheats so that you don’t feel too bad about not being strict the whole time.

Then, try a three-month plan. Assess.

Keep notes on your progress. Or, better yet, keep a spreadsheet and track certain diagnostics such as weight (an easy one to track every day), blood sugar, cholesterol and other things you can track pretty easily with affordable devices nowadays. The gold standard would be to work with your doctor on a full physical and blood work when you begin your new lifestyle and every few months after.

Again, diet is only one side of the coin. The other side is exercise. As with diet changes, phase in new exercise slowly. Stretch. Be gentle to your body because injuries surely will happen as you ramp up your exercise. Running is the best bang for the buck and requires only a pair of shoes for equipment (or you can even go barefoot on grass, as I do about once a week). Walking is great, too, if you’re new to exercise.

Even better for a lot of us is combining exercise with social fun in sports such as volleyball, cycling, tennis, etc. The key is to get heart and breathing rates up, and steadily increase the level of exertion over time as you become more comfortable.

Science is increasingly finding that vigorous exercise has numerous health benefits beyond helping with weight loss. In fact, it really is hard to overstate the benefits of regular vigorous exercise on our physical and mental health. It’s the closest thing we have to a magic pill for health and longevity.

There’s been some recent debate about the degree to which exercise does or does not help with weight loss. I’ve reviewed this research in some detail and discussed it extensively with Herman Pontzer, one of the key researchers who argues that exercise doesn’t affect how many calories we burn.

But looking at Pontzer’s own data, a couch potato who simply changes her lifestyle to one that includes “moderate exercise” will, all else being equal, burn on average of 200 more calories a day. That’s significant and will lead to about 1.5 pounds of fat loss per month. That’s pretty ideal because any higher level of weight loss will probably lead to unhealthy swings in weight. Slow and steady is the name of the game when it comes to weight loss and fitness.

The third step for long-term weight loss and fitness is to settle into changes to your diet and exercise that you can incorporate into your lifestyle on a permanent basis. This can only be done if you try different things and see what works. Become an experimenter, with yourself as your subject. Better yet, do this with your partner or friends, and you can each support each other in finding out what works for each of you. Again: Keep good data and track what you do and your results.

For me, I’m settling into the “plant-centric” approach I described above: mostly plants, legumes and nuts, with occasional meat and dairy, and low-carb intake, which means occasional bread or pasta. And working out three or four times a week, including running, swimming, biking, tennis, yoga and hiking.

I’ve been trying different “eating adventures” during the past couple of years. I just finished two months of a strict vegan diet, which I’ll write about in a future piece. I also tried a gluten-free/low-carb diet for a while. But I feel that what can work for me long term is the plant-centric diet described above.

I feel great, look the best I have in years, and also feel like my footprint on the planet is smaller in terms of environmental harm.

In sum, here’s the three-step approach I recommend: 1) honestly assess your level of will power and phase in your diet and exercise changes accordingly; 2) create a diet and exercise plan based on your self-assessment, research and what lifestyle changes you think you can achieve in a sustainable manner; 3) experiment with different approaches and settle into what you find works for permanent lifestyle changes.

In the next part of this series, I’ll discuss scientific evidence from the various diet plans that have become popular, as well as recommendations from other commentators.

— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer.

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