Losing weight is a pastime for millions in affluent societies, but regaining weight is an even more popular pastime. Of those who consult a physician for help in losing weight, only 7% actually reach their desired weight, and only 2% are able to maintain this for one year. 1 In America alone, in spite of diets, weight-loss gadgets, medications, health spas, and fitness clinics, about 60 percent of the adults over the age of 30 are still overweight. 2
Why are people overweight? Most of us believe that the cause is overeating. While it is true that you can’t gain weight from food you don’t eat, to claim that overeating is the sole cause of obesity is an oversimplification. Let me cite seven research findings which indicate that obesity is not just lack of self-discipline in eating habits.
1. A study has shown that most obese people don’t eat more than those of normal weight. 3
2. Two studies have shown that obese children actually eat fewer calories than children of normal weight. 4
3. One study has shown that obese individuals often have longer small intestines than normal. 5 This would lead to faster absorption of food.
4. Volunteer subjects from slimming clubs were incarcerated and observed for three weeks. Fed a 1500-calorie per day diet (which in theory should yield a two pound per week weight loss), nineteen individuals lost weight, nine maintained their weight, and two actually gained weight. 6
5. In another study, a group of subjects were persuaded to eat seven thousand to ten thousand calories per day for two hundred days or more, with an expected weight increase of 20 to 25 percent. Some reached the expected weight with ease, but others did so only with much difficulty, and others failed to gain any weight at all even though they consumed more than those who gained readily. 7
6. Hunger is a complex physiological and psychological phenomenon probably involving the release of recently discovered “hunger” hormones. We do not fully understand when and why these hormones are released, but some obese people may be the victims of improper hormone release. 8
7. Being overweight may be partly hereditary. For example, adopted children have a greater chance of having weight profiles like their biological parents than their adopted parents. 9
Thus, research suggests that obesity is not a simple matter of overeating and lack of self-control.
The Diet Cycle
One conclusion I draw from all this is that diet may not be the total answer in solving weight problems. Let’s look at the cycle that usually occurs when a typical person, John Doe, goes on a diet.
First, John stands in front of a mirror, sees rolls of ugly fat, and decides to lose twenty pounds. He cuts down on his eating.
Second, let’s say for the sake of argument that John loses ten pounds. However, unknown to him, 30 to 50 percent of his weight loss was muscle. 10 That means he lost about five pounds of fat, which is good, and five pounds of muscle, which is bad.
Third, John’s body resists this destruction of protein by making John feel uncomfortable and irritable. The diet is no fun; John is miserable.
Fourth, John goes off his diet. The miserable means (dieting) simply did not justify the hoped-for end (slimness).
Fifth, now John is discouraged. Since he knows nothing about the physiology of weight loss, he feels he lacks self-discipline. His self-image, strained in the first place by his weight problem, now dips to a new low.
Sixth, if John is like most overweight people, his discouragement leads to more eating.
Seventh, John regains the ten pounds he lost.
I am not saying that weight reduction diets are always unsuccessful, because there are a few people who do find success from dieting. What I am saying is that for most people, diet alone is not the answer to weight control.
So what is the answer? Unfortunately, there is no magic potion or miracle gadget. There is, however, a well-documented solution to most people’s weight problem: endurance exercise.
The right kind of exercise breaks the ill effects of the diet cycle. It increases the efficiency of burning fat and therefore prevents net loss of muscle tissue during dieting. 11 It decreases appetite relative to the calories burned during increased activity, 12 and it increases the lean body mass (while it decreases the amount of fat) to help maintain strength and fitness. Most of the difficulties of losing weight through diet alone can be overcome through endurance exercise.
The following is a simple exercise program designed for weight loss and fitness. Anyone who plans to use this or a similar program safely should consult a physician before embarking on the program. This is especially true for those who are very heavy, who have been physically inactive for some time, who are elderly, or who have some other health problem. The plan is designed for an average person, eighteen to fifty years old, of average fitness, and in relatively good health except for being overweight.
1. Run and/or walk ten miles per week spread over four or more days. I suggest you start by walking only, unless you are very fit. Try to walk one mile. If you begin to feel weary, slow down or stop. Start easy, go slow, and don’t overdo. In a proper endurance exercise plan, there may be room for slight discomfort but none for pain. If your first mile goes well, try going farther the next day. Don’t run. Walk until you can cover about two miles a day, five days a week, or a total of ten miles a week. Some people can start out at the full distance. Others will require a few weeks or even a few months.
After reaching that goal, if you feel you can, gradually mix in a little slow jogging. For example, walk two to three blocks, run a block, walk two to three blocks, and so on. If the running becomes painful or unduly fatiguing or especially if it induces dizziness, walk or stop altogether (after cooling down first, of course). The biggest problem in a fitness program is not lack of determination but too much of it; overdoing can precipitate stress injuries, soreness, undue tiredness, or even heart problems. Use your determination to keep patiently at the program, not to walk or run more than your body can handle.
Gradually increase the amount of slow, easy running until you are running all ten miles per week. Now you are ready to go to the next step. If you have problems running but still can walk comfortably, go to step 2.
2. Increase your weekly distance gradually to twenty miles. Never run more than two miles farther in one week than you did the week before. Never increase mileage from one week to the next if you experience undue stress or fatigue. Have the courage to give your muscles, tendons, and ligaments time to adjust. Once you have reached twenty miles per week, just keep doing it. Don’t worry about speed. Fast running won’t do you any more good than slow running. 13 Just run (or walk) twenty gentle miles a week.
3. Eat a balanced diet. Don’t worry so much about food (but certainly don’t increase your food intake). The main focus of this program is the exercise. If after six weeks or so, you want to lose weight a little faster, consider cutting down on your eating if you already haven’t naturally. But the main thing is to eat a balanced diet from the fruit and vegetable group, the bread and grain group, the meat group (which includes dried beans and nuts), and the dairy group.
4. Listen to your body. I believe that many people with weight problems think of their bodies as an enemy deceiving them into flabbiness. This is faulty thinking. If you listen to your body, you will have a greater likelihood of success in your exercise and in your diet. When you are out running and your body says something is wrong, stop running! Cool down, and then go home. When your body feels it needs more sleep, get more sleep! When your body starts to feel full, stop eating! Of course, make sure you’re eating balanced meals first (which should include fruits and vegetables, grains, meat, and dairy products); but even here, your body can tell you what you need to do: when your body starts to crave more fruits and vegetables and less “junk food” or other foods, eat more fruits and vegetables! If you will listen carefully, your body will help you in getting back to full fitness and health.
That’s the plan: (1) run and/or walk ten miles per week; (2) up the distance to twenty miles per week; (3) eat a balanced diet; (4) listen to your body.
This fitness program suggests long, slow distance running (or walking) as the main type of exercise. While other types of endurance exercise are just as valuable, and even may be better for you in your particular circumstances, I suggest running because:
1. It is the right kind of exercise—repetitive, large lower-body muscle exercise. Swimming, cycling, and cross-country skiing are also excellent exercise.
2. It is convenient. This is probably running’s best feature. You can do it anytime, with or without a partner, in any kind of weather, and in any location—around a track, across fields, on roads and sidewalks, along the beach, through city parks, or along mountain paths.
3. It is inexpensive. A good pair of running shoes can cost from thirty to fifty dollars. Comfortable running clothing is all you need. True, you can spend a lot on jogging outfits, but they are unnecessary.
4. It can be noncompetitive or competitive, whichever you prefer. Running has become so popular you can find a road race somewhere near your home almost every weekend of the year. Yet most of America’s twenty-five million joggers never enter a race.
5. It is fun. You probably don’t believe me since your only running before this has been one-mile jogs, forced marches in the army, or laps around the practice field as punishment in your high school P.E. class. And almost everyone finds running painful and boring until they get up to about twenty miles per week. After that—well, get into shape and find out for yourself how enjoyable it can be.
Why Twenty Miles Per Week?
A common question is, “Why twenty miles per week? Why can’t I get by on ten?” Let me give you four reasons:
1. To reduce weight and control body fat. At ten miles of running per week, the fat-burning efficiency in most people is still not developed well enough for significant weight loss. But twenty miles a week will handle even the most stubborn fat. Moreover, running twenty miles a week burns over two thousand calories, or about two-thirds of a pound of fat—the equivalent of two big meals. So for losing weight, running twenty miles is quite significant.
Running twenty miles a week also increases your body’s muscle, not only making you stronger but also increasing your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn just sitting around). This means you can eat the same and lose weight, or eat more and stay the same weight.
2. To increase cardiovascular fitness and decrease the risk of heart attack. 14 Jogging a mile a day or playing racquetball three days a week seem to have only a slight effect on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Several recently published research reports show that the risk of cardiovascular disease is significantly reduced by exercising two thousand calories per week—and running twenty miles burns about two thousand calories. 15
3. To exercise without competition. People who are aggressive, pressured, and constantly trying to do more in less time seem more susceptible to cardiovascular disease. 16 Mile-a-day jogging or thrice-a-week racquetball playing often promote competition and aggression and can become one more item for such people to do “faster” and “better” and “more efficiently.” Long, slow distance running is gentle, noncompetitive, and nonaggressive. It allows you to get out-of-doors, to get away from the pressures of life, and to be alone. Or it allows leisurely conversation with friends and family or relaxed sightseeing of your neighborhood.
4. The final reason for running twenty miles a week is to make exercise enjoyable. It’s a case of more being easier. At about twenty miles per week, the runner is usually freed from discomfort and boredom.
Here are a few more suggestions which may be helpful, as long as you are trying .to lose weight and become fit:
1. Eat slower. Your overweight body may be slow in signaling that you have eaten enough.
2. Eat more dried beans, fruit, vegetables, and grains. They provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and protein without a lot of excess calories.
3. Cut down on red meat and refined sugar, although neither in moderation is harmful. (Replace some of the red meat you eat with poultry and fish, which are lower in saturated fat and cholesterol).
4. Drink water before, during, and after exercise. It’s an old wives’ tale that water and vigorous exercise will cause cramps.
5. Warm up before running by walking or slow jogging. And “cool down” after a run by walking. Static stretching (stretch, then hold) is also recommended following exercise.
6. If you can’t carry on a conversation comfortably while running, you are running too fast.
7. Exercise on an empty stomach. It will not only help you avoid side aches and stomach cramps but also help you cut down on eating. Allow about three hours after eating before running.
8. Get plenty of sleep.
9. Talk with experienced runners about your sport, or read a good book on running. 17 It will give you additional practical advice and motivation.
10. Buy a good pair of running shoes to help prevent excessive stress on ankles and knees. Talk to sales clerks in sports and running stores.
As I talk to individuals and groups about exercise and weight control, certain questions seem always to come up. Here are a few of them:
1. “I have bad knees and can’t run. What should I do?” Maybe you had the wrong shoes. Good shoes cushion and stabilize the feet, and in turn cause less stress on the knees. Tennis shoes are fine for tennis and basketball but not for running. But if you still feel your knees can’t take running, then try swimming, cycling, and cross-country skiing, or just walking.
2. “What is the best brand of running shoes?” There is no single best brand. In fact, certain companies make both good and bad running shoes. Moreover, shoe companies continually improve their shoe models. Read articles, consult other runners, and talk to the sales clerks at a reputable sports shop or running store.
3. “How much swimming or bicycling should I do if I choose these exercises?” The goal is to exercise at a level of about two thousand calories per week. This means about twenty miles of running, five miles of swimming, or sixty miles of bicycling. 18
4. “What about other sports such as basketball, raquetball, tennis, or golf?” All of these sports are good exercise, but their intensity and duration are usually less valuable than repetitive, endurance exercise. Research suggests that cardiovascular fitness is difficult to attain through these sports. 19
5. “Do stationary bicycles (exercycles) provide proper exercise?” Yes. If you buy a good exercycle and ride it the equivalent of sixty miles per week, you will get the same benefit as from an outdoor bicycle. Many people like the exercycle because they don’t have to go outside and they can read or watch television while exercising.
6. “If I run in the cold, won’t I ‘burn’ my lungs?” No. Studies in Canada have shown 20 that lung damage won’t occur until temperatures drop to –40° F. Surface frostbite can occur, however, so make sure you wear the proper clothing. I would not hesitate to run at –10° F if there is no wind. Consult running books and magazines for more information about safe temperatures and wind-chills.
7. “How can I know my proper weight?” Although several sophisticated methods are available for estimating proper weight, the easiest method is to look in the mirror. If you see rolls of fat, you’re overweight. A common rule of thumb is this: Grab the skin fold just below your rib cage while standing up. A one-inch-thick roll means you are ten pounds overweight. Another rule of thumb says that your ideal weight is what you weighed when you were eighteen. Unfortunately, many of us were a little overweight even in high school.
8. “I don’t have time to exercise that much. What should I do?” A friend of mine said, “You can take the time now or lose the time later.” I don’t know how true this is, but research does suggest (but not prove) that endurance exercise prolongs life. 21 Running takes planning and scheduling, but most people can find time. For example, I know several people who run to work, saving time, gasoline, and the frustrations of parking. Again, it takes planning, but for some it’s the best way.
9. “What are some of the other benefits of endurance exercise?” I’ve already mentioned weight control and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Endurance exercise also helps reduce high blood pressure and relieve depression and nervous tension. 22 Moreover, physicians report that physically fit people bounce back faster from injury and disease. 23 Most people who stay on an endurance exercise program simply report, “It makes me feel better.”
Following an endurance program will almost certainly take inches from your waistline. But more importantly, you will discover how physical fitness makes everything in life a little more enjoyable.
P. E. Allsen, J. M. Harrison, and B. Vance, Fitness For Life, 2nd Ed. (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company, 1980), p. 65.
D. Craddock, Obesity and Its Management, 3rd Ed. (London: Churchill Livingstone, 1978), p. 4.
W. Reis, “Feeding Behaviour in Obesity,” Proc. Nutr. Soc. 32 (1973): 187–93.
R. L. Huenemann, “Food Habits of Obese and Nonobese Adolescents, Postgrad. Med. 51 (1972): 99–105. H. E. Rose and J. Mayer, “Activity, caloric intake, fat storage and energy balance of infants,” Pediatrics, 41 (1968): 15.
D. Hallberg (In discussion of surgical treatment of morbid obesity), Arch. Surg. 106 (1973): 437.
D. S. Miller and S. Parsonage, “Resistance to Slimming,” Lancet i (1975): 1773.
D. S. Miller, “Food Intake and Energy Utilization,” Nutrition, Physical Fitness and Health (Baltimore: University Park Press, 1978, J. Parizkova and V. A. Rogozkin, eds.), p. 5.
J. Gurin, “Chemical Feelings,” Science 80 1 (1979): 33.
J. Shields, Monozygotic Twins Brought Up Apart and Brought Up Together (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).
W. B. Zuti and L. A. Golding, “Comparing Diet and Exercise As Weight Reduction Tools,” Physician Sportsmed, 4 (1976): 49–51.
L. B. Oscai and J. O. Holloszy, “Effects of Weight Changes Produced by Exercise, Food Restriction, or Overeating on Body Composition.” J. Clin. Invest. 48 (1967): 2124–28.
Those already physically fit who are interested in minimum exercise should make sure their heart rate is elevated to 70 percent of its maximum for fifteen minutes three to four times a week. The maximum heart rate is approximately 220 beats per minute minus your age in years.
See footnote 13.
J. D. Cantwell, E. W. Watt, and J. H. Piper, “Fitness, Aerobic Points, and Coronary Risk,” Physician Sportsread, 7 (1979): 79–84.
M. Friedman and R. H. Rosenman, Type A Behavior and Your Heart (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974).
For example, J. E. Fixx, The Complete Book of Running (New York: Random House, 1977); A. G. Fisher and R. K. Conlee, The Complete Book of Physical Fitness (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1979).
Allsen et al., p. 138.
Cantwell et al., pp. 79–84.
A. Claremon, “Dealing with the Cold,” The Complete Marathoner (Mountain View, Ca.: World Publications, 1978, J. Henderson, ed.), p. 259.
R. Masironi, “Physical Activity, Nutrition and Cardiovascular Disease,” Nutrition, Physical Fitness, and Health (Baltimore: University Park Press, 1978, J. Parizkova and V. A. Rogozkin, eds.), p. 257–71.
T. Kostrubala; The Joy of Running (New York: Pocketbooks, 1976), pp. 102–12.
J. S. Garrow, Energy Balance and Obesity in Man (Amsterdam: Elsevier/North-Holland, 1978), p. 181.