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Subject:  Musings on Diet and Exercise Date:  1/10/2005  9:54 PM
Author:  Patzer Number:  46482 of 58955

It is not a novel observation that weight loss is easy to understand: If you expend more calories than you consume, you lose weight. If you expend fewer calories than you consume, you gain weight.

In the short time I've been here, this has been pointed out a couple of times. Both times, someone quickly replied that it wasn't that simple for various reasons including the effect of exercise on basal metabolism rate, the thermic effect of some calories being more easily assimilated than other, etc.

I grant that there are many other important factors to consider, particularly if I wish to promote general health and fitness instead of just losing weight however I can. Fortunately, the more significant other factors can be made to work with the primary effect.

The first-order, most important thing to remember is that to lose weight I have to expend more calories than I consume. Concerns about which foods I eat, which calories are more easily absorbed, how much exercise is enough, how much worse fats are than proteins and carbs, how much worse simple carbs are than complex carbs, how building muscle mass helps me burn fat while resting, and all the other minutia are really details of implementation. The big picure is that I need to expend more calories than I consume.

A true story: At the beginning of June, 1996, I was 40 years old and weighed 207 pounds. I started eating more, and it was all high-fat stuff. The McDonald's Two Cheeseburger Meal became a staple of my diet. Super-size that, please. Make that drink a real Coke with sugar and caffeine. I was under a lot of stress, and made no effort to limit my consumption of comfort foods. Ice cream? Bring it on. Potato chips and french onion dip? A lovely snack. Better have two of those 12 ounce containers of dip handy.

By mid-September I weighed 192, down 15 pounds.

Of course, the junk food diet wasn't the whole story. My employer was engaged in a stupid labor dispute with the union. I was spending 4 hours a day at my regular cubicle-dwelling job, and 8 hours plus Saturdays filling in for union workers who were not working as many hours as normal. The fill-in was characterized by periods of driving a van interspersed with physical labor doing real work. I built a lot of muscle mass without a formal exercise program. While doing my best to do craft work, I got to wear boots with steel toes and steel shanks. They weigh 2 pounds each, but were hardly noticeable next to the other stuff I got to carry around.

When the labor dispute was settled, I stopped eating as much and needed a lot less comfort food. All 15 pounds came back within a few months.

What I learned from my weight follies in 1996 is, exercise matters. It matters a lot. Sufficient exercise can overcome a terrible diet, at least in terms of pure weight control. A farmer or a construction worker can eat an awful lot and not become obese.

However, I am not a farmer or a construction worker. I am a cubicle dweller. If I want to maintain a reasonable weight, I can't eat like a farmer or like a construction worker. It's easy to get plenty of exercise if your paid job involves physical labor; it's a lot tougher if your paid job is sedentary.

I've wrestled with balancing diet and exercise since I first got disgusted with a peak weight at the beginning of 1999. I tried just getting more exercise. All that fit was a walk on my lunch hour. That kept me from gaining more weight, but was insufficient for weight loss. I tried just eating less, primarily smaller portions. Coupled with the daily walk on work days, that was enough for slow weight loss. Problem was, I could lose months of progress in a couple bad weeks of social eating and stress eating.

Along the way, I found that life's little details like having a teenage daughter with a psychological meltdown, or being forced to act as a single parent to said daughter for three months, or the three months being extended by a divorce proceeding, or the divorce proceeding dragging out for 21 months tended to get in the way of focusing on fat control and general health.

Amazingly enough, weight loss got easier when I got some of life's distractions out of the way. I like to think I learned some things from the interaction of my weight loss efforts and the distractions. What I've learned may not apply to everyone, or even necessarily to anyone other than myself. But for what it's worth, here are some lessons from my last decade:

1) Exercise matters. It matters a lot. Absent regular exercise, I will gain weight while eating very little.

2) If I am committed to 40 sedentary hours a week at work, exercise alone is insufficient. I will have to watch what I eat in addtion to exercising.

3) Life is going to throw distractions at me. Some of the distractions will be very compelling. It will be more important to pay attention to such distractions than to my diet and exercise plan. Because of this, I need a diet and exercise plan that can be followed with very little attention.

4) To keep getting exercise while life is distracting me, it is not sufficient that I enjoy the exercise. I have to look forward to the exercise, and I have to resent things that make me give it up for a day. This is what I need to get my exercise consistently. It also helps a lot if the exercise fits into time that is otherwise useless for my preferred leisure activities; my lunch hour is a good choice.

5) I have not been very successful at controlling eating while life is distrating me. I think the key is to achieve a mindset where food is not on page one of my priority list. It is easier to squeeze excess eating out by wanting to do something else than by sheer will power.

6) Portion control is vital. Even though it is cheaper by the ounce to buy the giant economy pack of whatever, it is important for me to buy single servings. Make that small single servings. Microwave soup is better than canned soup not because it is more convenient, but because there is less in the package.

7) I can't change my whole life at once. In 1999, I could add a regular walk on my lunch hour. With this one change, I got more exercise and ate less, as I was not eating out for lunch any more. After this became routine, I could start trying to control how much I ate for supper. After a small supper became routine, I could work on eliminating boredom eating. After I had done enough of this to have some weight loss success, I could "go public" with my need for weight loss and start posting here. If I tried to do all of that at once, it would fall apart and I would fail.

8) If I'm struggling to hold the routine together, I'm doing enough. If I'm holding the diet and exercise routine together without effort, I can afford to look for ways to improve it. Perhaps I can eat a little healthier. Or perhaps I can add a new form of exercise in some time that I would otherwise use to run to the fridge. Once I make such a change, I need to stick with just that change until I figure out how to make it routine and effortless. When it becomes effortless, I can look for another improvement.

9) When all is said and done, the bottom line remains the same: To lose weight, I have to expend more calories than I consume. Understanding this is very straightforward. It's actually doing it that is challenging.

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