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Subject:  Musings on Diet and Exercise Date:  1/10/2005  9:54 PM
Author:  Patzer Number:  46482 of 58808

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 i