The Fit Way to Weight Loss

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Tired of yo-yo dieting and endless hours on the treadmill? The secret to real and lasting weight loss is simpler than you think.

Americans spend billions of dollars every year on quick weight-loss solutions. Yet, these “solutions” are either temporary or they cause more problems than they solve (remember Fen-phen?). Whether you want to lose 10 pounds or 100, the key is to avoid the plethora of gimmicks, myths and quick fixes, and focus on sustainable changes that produce lasting results.

The only surefire way to lose weight and maintain that loss over time is to focus on fitness, notes Gary Miller, PhD, associate professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. That axiom is confirmed by volumes of research in recent years, including a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that women who maintained a fitness routine for 12 months or longer significantly improved their chances of sustaining long-term weight loss.

Now, putting in a lot of treadmill miles on a relatively low-intensity “fat-burning” setting will certainly burn some calories, and it may even help you burn off some fat over time. But exercising with an aim toward improved fitness — as opposed to just burning calories — will more rapidly and radically change your body on a cellular level.

These changes enable you to automatically burn more calories throughout the day, thus making it easier to shed unwanted fat and keep it off. The same changes also curb your appetite for unhealthy foods and boost your energy, making overeating less tempting and making exercise far easier and more appealing.

Combine all this with a satisfying, whole-foods nutrition plan that supports your fitness goals (versus a low-cal diet that emphasizes deprivation and that inadvertently winds up lowering your metabolism) and — ta da! — you have the formula for sustaining a healthy body weight for life.

Kick Your Calorie Fixation

Most people trying to lose weight get fixated on calories, so they make maximum calorie burning the exclusive aim of all their workouts. They often do very long and homogenous cardio sessions — walking or jogging for an hour or more at a relatively low, even level of intensity. But this is rarely the most efficient way to burn off unwanted fat, and it’s certainly not the most effective way to achieve and maintain a strong, lean body over time, say the experts.

To do that, you need to shift your metabolism, which regulates your body’s ability to become (and stay) lean. And shifting your metabolism depends on upgrading your fitness while supporting yourself with good nutrition.

“One thing that most people don’t realize is that their calorie-burning capacity is directly related to their level of fitness,” explains Mark Hyman, MD, editor-in-chief of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and author of UltraMetabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss (Scribner, 2006).

When your body turns food and oxygen into energy — something it does throughout the day, virtually all day —  it burns calories. That process takes place in your cells’ mitochondria, which need oxygen to burn those calories efficiently. So the more oxygen your body is capable of processing per minute (a function of your VO2 max — more on that in a moment), the more calories it can grind through on a given day.

In other words, being fit helps your body run more like a finely tuned machine — one that’s naturally inclined to eliminate excess weight.

“People who have a higher level of fitness burn more calories even while at rest and asleep,” Hyman says. Exact numbers are difficult to nail down because each person’s resting metabolic rate is unique (based on muscle mass, age, genetics and even climate). Still, some experts estimate that fit, muscular adults can burn an extra hundred calories or more per day — while at rest.

It’s important to note that in the course of their daily activities and workouts, fit adults can and do burn a couple thousand more calories daily than unfit, more sedentary ones.

And here’s the beauty of it: Fit people are naturally more inclined toward activity and tend to exert themselves at higher levels. That’s because exercise and activities of all kinds become easier as your fitness improves, and even intense levels of exertion become more comfortable. All of which makes calorie-burning activities a much more appealing proposition, thus further increasing active inclinations.

This is what’s known as a “benevolent circle” (as opposed to a vicious one) — and the more fit you become, the more you can take advantage of its fat-burning effects.

Flirt With Your Threshold

Of course, becoming fit requires you to do some work upfront. To tailor a workout plan to your unique physiology, Sally Edwards, MS, founder and CEO of Heart Zones Training System (www.heartzones.com), recommends exercising for at least 30 minutes, four to five times per week, within your target heart-rate zones — as determined by your current level of fitness and as measured by a heart-rate monitor.

The best way to determine your target zones is to identify — or at least get a good estimate of — your anaerobic threshold (AT). From there, you’ll want to do a variety of workouts that approach and occasionally cross over that threshold level of exertion. (For more information on anaerobic threshold and heart-rate training, see “A Better Way to Burn Fat” in the January/February 2007 archives.)

If you haven’t been working out regularly, start by building your aerobic base by exercising at 70 to 90 percent of your AT. As your fitness improves, begin incorporating intervals (brief periods of more intense exertion).

Intervals activate your mitochondria (your cellular powerhouses), because they force your body to consume and process more oxygen. A typical interval routine involves exercising for one minute at 100 to 110 percent of your AT followed by three minutes at 90 to 100 percent of your AT, and continuing the pattern for 20 to 30 minutes.

Working out this way — at the proper intensities and intervals — produces a more effective workout because you’re not over- or undertraining. But you are triggering your body to change at a metabolic level and to significantly increase its level of fitness. A bonus: “You’ll also notice a boost to your self-esteem that will make fitness more enjoyable,” Edwards says.

In addition to cardio, focus on building and maintaining muscle mass, Hyman suggests, because more muscle equals more cells and more calorie-busting mitochondria.

Feed Your Fitness

For many Americans, a weight-loss plan begins and ends with deprivation dieting. This inevitably backfires because 1) such diets are virtually impossible to maintain, 2) they lower your resting metabolic rate, and 3) they work against the very fitness improvements wise exercisers will strive to achieve as part of their weight-loss efforts.

A fitness-centric nutrition plan, on the other hand, puts the emphasis on supporting the body, not depriving it. It also looks and feels a lot more like “normal” eating —  because it is.

Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, recommends a nutrition plan that’s heavy on vegetables, fruits, lean meats, legumes, whole grains and healthy fats. Making such whole foods the center of your diet naturally delivers fewer calories and more real satisfaction while supporting you with all the nutrients and metabolism-boosting factors your body needs to achieve a high level of vitality and an ideal body composition.

Meanwhile, limiting refined carbs, sweets and other simple sugars helps moderate cravings and energy dips while decreasing blood-fat levels, helping you maintain a healthy weight without obsessing over every last calorie.

All these benefits work to support an active, fitness-oriented lifestyle, she notes. The better your body feels, the easier it is to get off the couch and go for a jog, head to the gym, go out dancing or simply enjoy time outdoors with your family.

Your nutritional needs do increase along with your activity levels, so it’s important to eat small, frequent meals (including an ample supply of whole-food carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats) to curb cravings and keep your metabolism high. (For more suggestions see “Weight-Loss Rules to Rethink” in the October 2006 archives.)

The Hormone Secret

For a deeper understanding of why weight loss is hardly the simple “calories in, calories out” equation it’s made out to be, consider how fitness affects your body’s hormones.

Fit people have lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone that can trigger overeating and cause your body to store fat more readily) and higher levels of growth hormone (which builds muscle and increases your metabolism). And, as Hyman notes, more muscle and a higher metabolism lead to more weight loss and better fitness, which in turn lowers stress-hormone levels and leads to more muscle gain. Another benevolent circle at work.

Good nutrition coupled with fitness can further influence your body’s hormones to promote weight loss. “Appetite comes from high levels of insulin — a result of a diet of refined foods, refined sugars and carbohydrates,” Hyman explains. “When you exercise, you lower your insulin levels, you become more insulin sensitive, and the cravings go away.”

Gender-specific hormones also play a role in fitness, he adds. “Fit men have higher levels of testosterone, which builds muscle.” Testosterone works by synthesizing the proteins in muscle fibers. A 1999 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that fit, healthy men had slightly elevated levels of testosterone and more lean body mass. As a bonus, they were also significantly less likely to suffer a heart attack and had lower blood pressure than overweight men with lower testosterone — just one more advantage fitness has over diet and exercise alone.

Women’s hormones are a bit trickier, notes Hyman. Women naturally experience low-energy days before their menstrual cycles, when fluctuating progesterone and estrogen levels cause them to crave more calories and feel bloated and fatigued. You can minimize these conditions by lowering the intensity of your workouts during the two or three days before your menstrual cycle, since your body is naturally under more stress. By resting, you can avoid a surge in cortisol, which causes you to store fat.

More good news: As you increase your fitness, these hormone fluctuations will become less dramatic and less likely to cause you to overeat or abandon your exercise routine. How? Adipose tissue, which stores fat, also produces estrogen, Hyman explains. So as you lose fat, your estrogen levels decline.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia also found that maintaining healthy levels of adipose tissue helps improve energy levels by keeping your thyroid function stable. (Too much or too little body fat can tip the hormonal scales in your disfavor.)

Gradual Is Good

While these fitness and nutrition guidelines apply to everyone, there are some added precautions you should take if you want to lose more than 20 or 30 pounds.

For significantly overweight individuals, launching into a high-impact, vigorous fitness routine can lead to joint pain, shortness of breath, overheating and other serious conditions.

The solution? Start small. “Pick one goal for the week and stick with it,” suggests Sandon. Focus on walking for 20 minutes each day, or replace one high-fat, calorie-rich snack with some fruit or veggies. Each week, build on the previous week’s goals until you have a routine that includes cardio exercise, weight training and a nutritious diet. By then, the changes will have been so gradual that you’re more likely to stick with them.

It’s especially important for overweight or obese people to exercise daily — even if it’s low-intensity activities, such as walking or swimming, say researchers at Laval University in Quebec. In two separate studies, they found that moving the body every day improves insulin sensitivity, lipid profiles and blood pressure.

As you become more accustomed to exercise, you can rev up your metabolism by adding interval training (described below) to your routine, Hyman suggests.

For now, just do what you can, knowing that you are shifting your metabolism in the right direction and getting healthier in the process.

Attitude Adjustment

Some of the most important changes you’ll experience as your fitness improves are the ones you don’t see: the boost in confidence that comes from being present in your body. The sense of strength you feel in your muscles. The increased desire to move your body for the joy of it. The pride that comes from making palpable progress toward a truly meaningful goal. These are subtle changes that have a huge impact on the way you feel — and the way you live.

“All successful behavioral change is influenced by attitude,” says Daniel Zeman, MS, an exercise physiologist with nearly 30 years of experience advising individuals of all shapes and sizes.

The most common hurdle Zeman encounters? “Many people view weight loss as punishment,” he says. “Someone who believes they need to lose weight but has a negative view of the change says, ‘I will starve myself and exercise excessively until I reach my goal weight, and then, having paid my debt, I can return to my real life,’” he notes.

If, on the other hand, you see improved fitness and the resulting loss of excess weight as central to creating a more enjoyable life, he says, you’re more likely to make a shift that lasts. Which means you can say a permanent goodbye to diets and “fat-burning” workouts — and say hello to a body you’ll want to live in for the rest of your days.

Gina DeMillo Wagner writes about fitness and exercise for magazines including Outside, Skiing, Runner’s World and Shape.

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