Real Life 101, Lesson 7: Fitness and Health Basics

This is the seventh in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Young man (or woman), look at this site. It should sober you up. It is not exactly news that obesity is a “growing” problem among Americans. Nonetheless, as you delve into the details you should feel aghast. Today a shocking 8 out of 10 Americans over age 25 are either overweight or obese. A quarter of us lead completely sedentary lifestyles. In less than twenty years, there has been a 76% increase in the number of adult Americans with Type II diabetes. This is the type of diabetes does not develop until adulthood. 85% of those who develop Type II diabetes are overweight or obese.

Maybe by comparing yourself to others at your school or college, you do not feel out of the norm. This may be because so many teens and young adults are following these unfortunate national trends. If you go back just sixteen years though, the number of obese young adults age 18-29 has doubled. It does not take a Texas Instruments calculator to figure out that if you are not already obese or overweight, the chances are you will get there one day. If you grew up eating pizza, drinking colas and your idea of exercise is keyboard calisthenics, project your current lifestyle ten, twenty and forty years in the future. What do you think is going to happen if you do not change some habits? (Hint: look at your parents, but most likely your situation will be worse.)

If you are overweight or obese, it is not necessarily all your fault. Placing blame does not solve the problem of course, but it is helpful to know that modern society will encourage you to be obese. Unlike hundreds of generations before you, your career is not likely to be hunter or farmhand. Your future will look a lot more like Dilbert’s. Our modern world needs knowledge workers, not farmhands, and encourages us to be knowledge workers by tempting us with higher salaries. You will likely spend your days in either a cubicle or its equivalent. Even if you aspire to be a truck driver, you are unlikely to escape the trend. Truck drivers sit on their butts all day too. These days we have machines to do our hard labor. Unfortunately, you inhabit a body that was designed to be a hunter-gatherer. Perhaps fifty generations hence our bodies will adapt to our new reality. Perhaps then, our livers will pass fats undigested instead of storing them. Little good that will do you now. Unless exercising is your passion, or you enjoy working outdoors with your hands, you have a big problem. You need regular exercise. You also need to eat better. If you do not, expect your lifespan to be shorter than your parents. Do not be surprised if the last third of your life is full of chronic health care issues. Is this how you envisioned your adult life?

Even if you are 18 and skinny as a rail, your body is going to throw you a curve ball. This is because about the time you graduate high school you should not just be grown up, but your body has finished growing up. All those extra calories will soon no longer be needed. If you never gained any weight during your adolescence and you continue your eating patterns, you are guaranteed to gain weight.

Not surprisingly, this was my dilemma as a young adult. One day in my early twenties, I weighed myself and was shocked that although I had never exceeded 180 pounds (I am 6’2″) all my life, I was suddenly 195 pounds. Now, at age 50, although not obese, I remain overweight. How do you know if you are not overweight? You need to have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less. In my case, given my height I need to be 190 pounds or less.

Being healthy as an adult though is a lot more than having a healthy weight. It also means you have to take care of your body’s other needs. You know, the boring stuff: eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise. If your weight is normal but you survive on pizza and you never exercise, you are leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

You already know what I am going to suggest: get regular exercise, maintain a healthy body weight and eat better foods. If you are overweight or obese though, none of these things is likely to be easy. Diet books will always be popular because we will always want to believe that by following one book that we will solve all these problems. What we really want is some sort of magical formula that will allow us to continue our sedentary lifestyles and eat like pigs yet stay in optimal health. You might as wish to win the lottery.

Obesity is going to be the challenge of your generation, just as smoking and drugs were the challenge for my generation. (Obesity though is affecting the baby boom generation too. We just started later.) You need to be very mindful of this. Staying healthy is likely to be a constant challenge for you throughout your adult life.

If you are at a healthy weight, then congratulations. You mission is now to stay this way. You need to start increasing your exercise without increasing your calorie intake. That does not mean you need to run marathons, unless you want to. This does mean that you need to work in regular sustained physical activities that hopefully you also enjoy. Since you are young and still have your joints, group sports like volleyball and basketball are excellent means toward accomplishing this goal. Pick activities you enjoy. Weigh yourself at least once a month. Once a week is ideal.

If you are already overweight or obese, you will have to change some habits. You can try Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and similar commercial solutions. These diets are often quite effective at taking weight off. The problem is that almost all diets are temporary. Pounds will come off but they will soon come back. You may find yourself all worn out after a long day of work and use this as an excuse to skip your evening exercise. You will find yourself taking an extra donut when you know you should not. Sadly, there are no free calories.

There are three proven solutions to losing weight and keeping it off. The sooner you start the easier it is to do as a lifetime habit. Here they are: count your calories, weigh yourself regularly, and use support groups. I have a friend who recently lost 65 pounds. I was impressed. How did he succeed where others have so often failed? His wife convinced him to enroll in the George Washington University Weight Management Program. Most diet programs have a long-term success rate of about 5%. This program, while not perfect, has a 40% success rate, which is phenomenally high. The essence of their secret is to follow the elements above. This program is based on the understanding that weight loss and healthy living is a lifelong journey, not a short-term destination. Taking the weight off is wonderful, but is meaningless if it goes back on. Therefore, it offers considerable therapy and support groups to help people work through these issues. (I will need to see if my friend is still at his weight in a year. His odds are 40%.)

I am not suggesting that the only way to become and stay healthy is to use a program like this one. The younger you are the more flexible you will be both mentally and bodily to develop your own weight loss solutions. Unless your job involves heavy physical demands though you are unlikely to burn off the calories you consume unless you change your practices.

There are a few other things that I discovered during my own journey that you might find useful. First, aerobics is probably not enough. Granted, marathoners as a class tend to look extremely lean, but you are unlikely to be a marathoner. Here is the problem with doing just aerobics: as you grow older your muscle mass tends to decrease. Ideally, just as you want to keep all your brain cells as you age, you want to keep the same muscle mass you had as a physically fit teenager. If you do not engage in regular weight training (which probably should be in addition to regular aerobics) your muscle mass will decrease over time. This means that even if your weight is stable your BMI will increase over time, so you will become overweight. Why is it that so many of our elderly have such a hard time getting around? It is because they never did regular weight training. Depending on which experts you ask you will get different answers, but most will suggest you need to be lifting weights at least three times a week. The general strategy involves rotating the muscles that you exercise. Ideally you will have enough spare cash to work out with a personal trainer, who can show you how to do it correctly. Essentially, proper weight training involves lifting weights a lot heavier than you think you can lift. To do it correctly, you have to be able to start by lifting a set of weights but at some point find it impossible to continue lifting them. For most weight machines, this is between ten and fifteen repetitions per set. (Note: before starting any exercise program like this, consult a physician.)

All this takes a lot of time. I do it after work and on weekends mostly at my local Gold’s Gym. Each trip takes a minimum of an hour and often consumes two hours of my precious free time. I should enjoy it but most of the time I do not. (Listening to podcasts on my MP3 player while I exercise helps a lot.) This is the price that I have to pay in order to be a healthy human and work a sedentary job. The good news is that by doing both, while I am technically still overweight, my BMI is improving. It is quite possible to be overweight yet be healthy. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least before he gave up the weight training. Notice what happened since: Arnold is now overweight, but he has replaced a lot of his muscle with fat.

Welcome to real life, young adult. I hope that you can find some combination of diet and exercise that works for you. I am afraid though this will mean tearing yourself away from Second Life and instead engaging in real life. If this sounds like you, it is time to back away from that PC and get moving instead.

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