HEALTH & FITNESS • BY TAMRA TOMLINSON
It’s the time of year when the pills and powders, gyms, shopping channels and infomercials are promising that for just a few easy payments, they can deliver a “Happy New You.”
But, whether your goal is to drop a few (or a lot of) pounds, or just to create a fitness routine and eating habits that you can succeed with, health and fitness professionals agree that stitching together one small change after another is better than diving headlong into the diet of the year or leaping into an intense exercise program all at once.
“A lot of what I talk to my clients about is baby steps,” said Jane Jakubczak, registered dietician, and licensed dietician and nutritionist at University of Maryland’s University Health Center. She said that a desire to lose weight is the “number-one reason” that clients come to her.
It’s often not a lack of information that makes weight loss difficult, Jakubczak said, but a lack of planning.
“One of the best reasons people can’t lose weight is that everyone is so busy that people aren’t thinking about what they eat until they’re hungry. Then they tend to just grab whatever is close by or easy.”
Because what’s convenient or quick is often not the best choice, she said, planning is essential. She focuses on having clients plan ahead for several options for each meal or snack, to avoid having to make those choices while they’re hungry.
Like many health and fitness professionals, Jakubczak rejects the whole notion of dieting. “I always see people saying ‘I’m going to go on a diet tomorrow’, and eating what they call ‘health food’, which they don’t even like.” Instead, she encourages clients to eat by the “80-20 rule.”
“Choose nutrient-dense foods 80 percent of the time and the other percent 20 for pure enjoyment. That seems to work out well – filling up your diet with healthy foods, so the less -healthy foods take a smaller role. You don’t want people to get rid of all the yummy, fun foods. Our most common approach is cutting things out, but if you add [healthy] things you have only so much room to fit the other things.”
“One of the things I tend to focus on is getting people to eat more fruit and vegetables. Lots of research says that’s one of the best things people can do…if I can get them to have just one more fruit a day, that will make a big impact.”
One of the next steps she recommends is increasing calcium intake. “That’s one of the nutrients we tend to be deficient in,” Jakubczak said. She recommended adding low-fat dairy products like skim milk, low-fat yogurt, or cheese.
“I also make sure that they’re drinking plenty of water. Many of us are walking around in a very dehydrated state. We sometimes think we’re hungry when we’re actually thirsty. That’s kind of an easy goal.”
But Jakubczak cautioned that when it comes to weight loss, expectations have to be kept in line with reality. The effects of better food choices should be measured, especially initially, by more than the numbers on the scale, she said. While weight loss will come slowly, an increase in energy is often noticeable very quickly.
“A lot of us are too focused on the scale…But, you’re going to start feeling better in two or three days. The problem is a lot of people are so focused on the scale, and they’re not paying attention to how they feel…These are small steps evolving into a healthier diet that will support a healthier weight.
This is a process and you need to be patient with it. When they don’t see the weight just dropping off, they think it’s not working…I can’t tell you how often I use the words ‘patience’ and ‘persistence’ with my clients. We have to keep reminding ourselves that it’s a slow process…You have to find a way of eating that you enjoy, and you’ll be able to maintain for a lifetime.”
“Success breeds success, and when they see that success they tend to keep going.”
Along with modifications to our eating habits, organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Institutes of Health recommend exercise as a vital component of weight loss.
As with nutrition, the problem with exercise is frequently too much information rather than a lack of it. To make matters worse, much of what is presented as fitness information is thinly veiled advertising for a new piece of exercise equipment or fitness video series.
In the past decade, many Americans have discovered the benefits of mind-body fitness activities like Tai-Chi and yoga, either as an enhancement to their existing exercise routine or as an alternative to going to the gym.
Stephen Pleasant, owner and director of yoga studio Bikram Yoga Takoma Park, is a certified Bikram Method yoga instructor who took his first class in a small town in central Russia while working as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1992.
Pleasant believes that the reason that exercise tends to become sporadic for many of us is that exercisers focus too much on what they want to do, or believe they should do, without giving enough consideration to why they’re doing it.
“We tend to jump to the doing – going to the gym, [saying] ‘I’m going to eat healthy’…It doesn’t pull you into the future because it’s not inspiring. You have to take on a new way of being.”
A desire to lose weight, to be a certain size, or to look good in a swimsuit, Pleasant said, aren’t adequate goals for creating lasting change because they’re oriented toward the external.
“It’s so uninspiring and limiting. You have to work to create a transformation of total health and well-being….Motivation is not an external thing. It doesn’t come from others. Focus on who you’re being – that will impact your doing, which will impact your results…Many of us get it backwards, we need to focus on how we need to be.”
Pleasant echoed the often-heard advice from fitness professionals to find activities that are suitable to your own personality and lifestyle, so that you’ll be more likely to stick with them. Any exercise, however, will be challenging, especially in the beginning. While the body is adapting to the challenge of a new activity, Pleasant said, it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking and speaking of exercise as a chore and something to dread.
“People create a world, through their speech, of toil and hardship. No wonder they quit.” he said.
If you find yourself really struggling, modifying your exercise routine to make it bit easier is vastly preferable to giving it up entirely. In any fitness program, consistency is key.
“Your muscles have memory,” Pleasant said. “In order for your body to learn a new way of being, it needs repetition.”
Keeping expectations manageable and working with your current fitness level was also the advice from George Buckheit, a club-level running coach since 1982.Buckheit trains a lot of what he calls “rebeginners” – runners who have been away from the activity for as little as a few months or as long as fifteen years. His task is to help runners plan their training with an eye toward a specific goal to be met within a specific time.
“Most people come to me after they’ve already set a goal. What I do is weigh out the training plan – how do you get from the fitness level you’re at to where you want to be.”
One of the most common problems he sees, especially with runners determined to get back into the sport after a long break, is overtraining. That often leads to injury, and then to yet more time away from exercise.
“A lot of the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that it hurts too much to train the way you think you’re supposed to train…You pile on too much too soon, your knees start hurting, your back starts hurting. A slow, steady approach is best. You’ve got to start easy. You’ve got to give some concession to the fact that you’ve been away from training for a while.”
He advocates being “cautiously aggressive” – creating a workout schedule that hard enough to be challenging but not so hard as to be exhausting. “There’s got to be a balance there,” he said. “How much you can handle without going over the edge, it varies from person to person.”
Setting goals is an essential component of training when returning to exercise, Buckheit said. But it’s equally important to be flexible. It’s sometimes unwise to insist upon running a certain distance on a certain day, “come hell or high water, “ he said. “It’s not a crime to stop and walk and catch you breath.”
Buckheit recommends group running workouts as a way to help yourself adhere to a training plan. “There’s a little bit of peer pressure, knowing that you have to get out and meet your buddies. You want to feel like you’re fit when you get to the workout.”
He also stressed the role of adequate sleep and nutrition, noting that it’s important to examine your entire lifestyle and how it’s contributing to or diminishing your ability to train. “You’ve got to be sleeping right, eating right. A lot of people think, ‘Well, I’ll just go out and run,’ and they have McDonald’s for dinner, they go out drinking at night and get two hours of sleep, and they wonder why they feel like garbage the next day.”
Like Jakubczak and Pleasant, Buckheit emphasized the importance of patience and consistency. “It’s going to take several weeks before you feel like you’re getting into the swing of it. Every week you’ll find you’re making slow, steady progress. It takes about a month for it to feel natural.”
“Like everything in life,” Buckheit said, “start easy, finish with a bang.”