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Controlling what you burn

  We all enjoy eating. The prospect of eating less seems inseparably coupled to going hungry. Many people in industrialised countries have no real experience with hunger other than when trying to lose weight. That connection only reinforces our disinclination to diet.

Ever resourceful, we seize on the other side of the ledger sheet. How can you increase what you burn? There are two basic ways. You can increase basal metabolism, the rate your body burns calories all the time, or you can add physical activity to your life to consume some additional calories.

It'd be great if we all came with a knob in some convenient place that adjusted our metabolism to meet the challenges of fast food. Regrettably, evolution, not having the time as yet to come to terms with deep dish garbage pies with swimmers (thick crust ``everything'' pizza with shrimp and anchovies, for those unfamiliar with the delectation), has neglected to equip us with such a welcome refinement. Regular exercise increases the metabolism a little, but for the most part you have to play the metabolic hand you're dealt. Since a large portion of the calories burned go toward keeping your body at 98.6 F you could apply for a job at the South Pole or, failing that, move your desk into the meatlocker at a nearby supermarket. You'd burn calories at a prodigious pace, but somehow I doubt you're thrilled at the prospect.

How about exercise? ``If only I were more active, I could eat as much as I want (in other words, the same way I do now), and lose weight.'' After all, everybody can point to friends that bound out of bed at the crack of dawn for a few furious rounds of tennis before breakfast, then dash off to play handball after work. These lean and lanky types all seem to say they just eat whatever they want and never worry about their weight.

It's a glorious idea to control your weight without changing the way you eat, but like so many attractive ideas, it doesn't work. But what about the sports fanatic? Ask him if he's ever had a weight problem. Odds are he'll say, ``Of course not. I've always been in shape.'' People who have trouble with their weight are different from those who don't. That doesn't mean they're defective or inferior, no more than people who need eyeglasses to see clearly are lesser men than those born with 20/20 vision. In the next chapter we'll examine why some people never have a weight problem while others remain locked in a lifelong struggle with the scale. We'll see how weight problems can be solved just as effectively as eyeglasses or contact lenses fix imperfect vision. Here, the focus is purely on why weight control by exercise alone is an illusion.

The problem is a simple matter of numbers. Consider the 5'11" medium build male we discussed earlier. This individual burns around 2200 calories a day, roughly 100 calories an hour. If, overweight and fed up with being fat, he vows to exercise a full hour every day for the rest of his life, here's roughly how many extra calories he'll burn each day by taking up each of the following.

Activity Calories/hour
Walking 300
Bicycling 300
Aerobics 400
Swimming 400
Tennis 500
Basketball 500
Jogging 700

At first glance, this looks pretty good. After all, an hour of tennis, at 500 calories, represents almost a 25% increase in calories burned. Indeed, if you expend 500 extra calories a day while holding what you eat the same, you'll burn off 3500 calories and a pound of fat every week. Fifty-two pounds a year without ever dieting sounds like a perfect racquet, even if you don't enjoy the game.

Regrettably, there are several thorns in this rosy picture. First, consider the fundamental assumption that you're going to spend a full hour each and every day engaged continuously in a given activity. Where, precisely, is that hour going to fit into your day? Before breakfast? After work? When? And how will it fit into your weekend schedule? If, like most of us, you can barely find time for all the things you have to do, not to speak of the ones you'd like to get around to, seven hours a week is a big chunk of time to devote to anything.

Second, those calorie counts are for a full hour spent nonstop in each sport or exercise. While anybody can, after a while, get used to walking or bicycling nonstop for an hour (which, however, only uses up 300 calories), when's the last time you or anybody you know spent a full hour jogging, swimming, or playing basketball without a break? Even if you found the time and spent the months it would take to get into condition so you could, is this the way you'd want to spend one hour of every day for the rest of your life?

Once you start to make the inevitable compromises with reality: planning, instead, to work out three times a week, to spend 45 minutes each time rather than an hour, and so on, things begin to come apart on the calorie burning front. For if you do faithfully play 45 minutes of active tennis (in an hour session) every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, that totals only 135 minutes a week: two and a quarter hours. At 500 calories an hour, that only adds 1125 calories per week to what you burn. Spread out over 7 days, that's equivalent to just 160 calories of food a day. In other words, you can achieve equivalent weight loss by reducing your daily food intake by items such as:

Foregone confection Calories
Nonfat yogurt 150
Cream of mushroom soup, bowl 175
Bread, 2 slices 150
Beer, 1 can 150
Snickers bar 275
Cola with sugar, 1 can 145
Twinkie 160

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting exercise is unimportant. Exercise plays an essential role in maintaining your health, and in chapter [Ref] I'm going to climb on the soap box and try to convince you to start exercising this very day, following a program I've crafted to fit realistically into the lives of busy, harried people like ourselves--a program you're likely to stay with through the years as opposed to more ambitious schemes that end up abandoned after a few months.

Nor do I mean to imply that exercising won't help you lose weight. Far from it: exercise doesn't just burn calories, it also raises your general level of metabolism so you burn more calories even when you're resting and, in some people, it seems to suppress appetite. Adopting a comprehensive exercise plan, whether the one in this book or another of your choice, and making it part of your regular routine will certainly help you lose weight in addition to the numerous other benefits you'll accrue.

But don't delude yourself into thinking that exercise can do the whole job. For many of us, exercising just causes us to eat that little bit more that cancels out its benefits. The calories burned by exercising, even counting the secondary effects on metabolism, can be erased by even the slightest increases in food intake. No, we'll have to look at what goes in to achieve real and permanent control over weight.

So, exercise if you can and expect ample rewards, but don't exercise thinking that it, alone, will achieve your weight goal. Not only are you likely to be disappointed when the weight doesn't come off, you'll then be tempted to abandon the exercise program in disgust, compounding the problem. On the other hand, if you've sworn not to spend a single minute from now until the day you die engaged in any form of exercise (even knowing that your dying day may, through that very pledge, come sooner), you still needn't be overweight. You can manage your weight quite effectively using the program in this book without ever exercising. Is that a good idea? No it's not, but if you're determined to be out of shape you're better off at the right weight than 50 pounds too heavy and out of shape.


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By John Walker