A Tale of Two Cities

This post has been running around my brain for a few weeks. It is a tale of two cities. No, not Paris and London, the two cities that Charles Dickens wrote about in his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. This is the tale of Tallahassee, Florida and Boulder, Colorado. I have been to both. It would be hard to find two cities where the fitness levels of its residents diverge so much.

Okay, in some ways Tallahassee and Boulder are similar. Tallahassee is the larger of the two cities and the state capital. Boulder has around 90,000 residents. Tallahassee has around 160,000 residents, but as city sizes go, they are not that dissimilar. Both are college towns. Tallahassee has two colleges of note: Florida State and Florida A&M. Boulder has the University of Colorado at Boulder. Both are in the United States, but otherwise that’s about all the similarities worth noting.

I became acquainted with Tallahassee in 2007 when life finally took me there for a few days. I even blogged about it. There are possibly other cities in or around the Gulf Coast where the residents are more obese, but it is hard to imagine such a place. Tallahassee must be something of a Mecca for endocrinologists and Glucophage manufacturers. Its population appears to consist mostly of adult diabetics in the more advanced stage of the disease. Not that its many obese residents actually appear to be treating their diabetes. First, most of them appear too poor to afford treatment outside of an emergency room. Second, where would they find the health food? The eating choices in Tallahassee seem to be largely limited to the greasiest of the greasy joints. Burger King is the most predominant grease joint in Tallahassee, but in reality, it is just one of many. Within a quarter mile in Tallahassee you can find the following greasy spoons: Dominoes, which is next to the Taco Bell, which is across the street from Moe’s Southwest Grill, which is next door to Firehouse Subs, which is adjacent to Momo’s Pizza and Shane’s Rib Rack. Across the street is a Papa John’s Pizza. A little further down the street you will find Qdobo Mexican Grill and, of course, a Burger King. If you need groceries, there is exactly one Winn Dixie on the southern and predominantly African American side of town. Winn Dixie, Circle K and Albertsons have close to a lock on the grocery business in Tallahassee. Good luck finding a Whole Foods. There are none.

If it were not for the college students, the situation would appear far worse than it is. Those out of towners help, but cannot begin to hide the extent of Tallahassee’s obesity problem. Why is obesity so bad in Tallahassee? It likely has a lot to do with the relatively low average income of citizens in the city. Thanks in part to massive farm subsidies, we have made grain and sugar artificially cheap, which means that it costs little to eat the wrong food and proportionally a lot more to eat healthy, if you can find healthy food at all. Healthy food is not easy to acquire because I paid careful attention while I was there and found nothing resembling a health food store. The culture of the city though seems to be saying, “It’s okay to be morbidly obese and to eat junk. You’re just like everyone else.” If I were a health insurance provider, I would redline the whole city.

Boulder, Colorado on the other hand is its polar opposite. If there is a healthier (and more environmentally correct) city in the country, I would like to know about it. I doubt it exists. Having spent many pleasant days in Boulder in the company of my brother and sister in law, I find much to like about Boulder. Obesity is not unknown in Boulder but it is hard to find. That is because the city’s culture seems hardwired toward healthy eating and exercise.

Fast food can be found in Boulder, but it can be challenging. There is one Wendy’s downtown close to Pearl Street. Otherwise, you have to travel to the edge of town. There are three McDonalds in the city, and a few more along its edges. If you want a supermarket, you had better prefer organic supermarkets because they are far more plentiful. There are six Whole Foods markets in Boulder alone.

Don’t move to Boulder and expect to be a couch potato. It is not allowed. I think they must have citizen organizations that hunt for couch potatoes and make them work out. Boulder takes exercise seriously; it is practically a commandment. It is not just that you live right next to the Rocky Mountains and there are abundant hiking trails within easy walking distance. In Boulder, it seems like there must be an ordinance requiring its citizens to get regular aerobic exercise. Its citizens take their obligation seriously. When I have been in Boulder during a snowstorm, my brother pointed out that plowing the roads was scattershot. However, the bike trails, which are numerous, were plowed. The residents of Boulder have their priorities and snow removal on roads is second to removing snow from its biking trails. They do not seem to mind biking in freezing weather or even in the snow. Instead, they put studs on their bike tires and peddle to their destination. Or they may snow ski. Or run. They do not seem worried about twisting an ankle by running through the snow, even on the mountain trails where a slip could be fatal. Whole families can be seen walking around neighborhoods at night just for the exercise.

My latest trip to Boulder in March suggested to me that a certain percent of Boulder residents are, well, insane. I should mention that this does not apply to my wonderful brother, his wonderful wife and her adorable daughter. They work in exercise, daily if possible and particularly on the weekends. Fifty or sixty mile weekend bike excursions are par for their course. It could be that, or snow shoeing, or hiking, or long walks or most likely of all, some combination of all of these. Frankly, I admire their healthy attitude and wish some of it would rub off on other members of my immediate family here in traffic clogged Northern Virginia.

Nevertheless, there are significant numbers of Boulderites who exercise the way addicts mainline crack. I saw some of them on the last Sunday in March when my brother drove me up to Fort Collins. I thought it was strange when in thirty-degree weather we kept passing packs of bicyclists traveling on the shoulders of major thoroughfares, at times even crowding out the vehicular traffic. We passed dozen of packs on the way to Fort Collins; some of these packs consisted of a hundred or more bicyclists. My brother told me that many were biking to Fort Collins and back, which is a nice little jaunt of a hundred miles or so.

He also told me of a neighbor who after returning from one of these marathon hundred mile plus rides quickly rushed off to the swimming pool. Why? Because he was competing in a triathlon so now he had to swim a few miles too. This probably meant he also had to run a dozen miles or so too.

Doubtless, he was but one of many Boulder residents also planning to compete in a triathlon, so I expect the swimming lanes at the local pools were congested. Good luck to them but isn’t doing this level of exercise consistently maybe just a wee bit insane? It is to me. Granted there is nothing wrong with it, if your body can handle it, and it is certainly magnitudes healthier than eating grease at the plentiful fast food joints in Tallahassee. My last trip to Boulder though convinced me that it is possible to overdo exercise. Some small but sizeable number of Boulderites have gone off the deep end.

I am considering Boulder as a place to retire. I suspect it would not take too many weeks of living in Boulder before hundred mile bike jaunts would become second nature to me too. I would hardly be unique, just one of the crowd. I do know one thing: despite some folks in Boulder who may be exercise obsessed, it is a great place to live, if you can afford its real estate prices. I would definitely rather retire to Boulder than to Tallahassee, although on my pension I could live like a king in Tallahassee. In Tallahassee, I am convinced I could gain weight just by breathing its air.

My warranty has expired

My wife and I must be channeling each other. Shortly after Thanksgiving, she slipped her first disk. Since then she has spent much of her time in pain ranging from bad to excruciating. When you have pain that pervasive and acute, you get desperate. Unable to get physical therapy right away she ran to a chiropractor hoping for relief. Not much was found from either her chiropractor or her physical therapist. An MRI revealed a badly herniated disk. A shot directly on the affected ligament seems to have reduced a lot of the pain. She now bears some resemblance to her pre-Thanksgiving self. More shots are on her horizon and if they do not work spinal surgery may follow and with it the possibility of permanent injury.

Meanwhile my back has started hurting too although thankfully not so acutely. For a few weeks as we men often do, I ignored the pain and hoped it would go away. Eventually the pain reached a point where I grudgingly decided I should be seen. A nurse practitioner placed her finger in places inside my body that no human ever should and diagnosed prostatitis. Two weeks on Cipro though did not seem to alleviate the dull pain in my lumbar region. My doctor then guessed that I was probably dealing with lower back pain from sitting too much, as us office workers tend to do. A week on Naproxen and muscle relaxants seemed to help a bit but the pain has not gone away. It is time to consult with a urologist. Meanwhile, I convinced my boss to order me a fancy Herman Miller Aeron chair.

I had been warned that when you are fifty-something these sorts of medical mysteries become more routine than atypical. Somehow, I thought that I would be the exception. With enough regular aerobics and weight lifting at my local Gold’s Gym, I believed that I could beat the odds. Sadly, I seem to be suffering from self-delusion. My challenge now is to keep my medical issues minor rather than assume that with the right diet and exercise I can escape them altogether. My warranty has expired. In short, I am doomed.

I know intellectually that I will die someday. I cope with this morbid fact via the typical human means: denial and distraction. The sad fact about your warranty expiring is that neither denial nor distraction is possible. To deny your back problems while keeled over makes you worthy of derision. Age spots appear unwanted on my skin, which I had so carefully protected all these years with sunscreens and lotions. I need reading glasses to read anything closer than two feet from me. If it is more than two feet away from me then the font had better be large or I cannot read it at all. I used to have the ears of a dog. When some ultra high pitch entered my ear canal, I was frozen like a deer in a car’s headlights. This is no longer a problem because I can no longer hear those higher registers. Eczema splotches appear on my legs during the winter. Some years ago, something I wore irritated my legs. As a result, I lost most of the hair on my legs below my knee. The hair is not growing back.

Running, my preferred exercise for so many years is now largely out of the question. No matter what shoes I try, it hurts too much. In the best case, the nerves in my feet will tingle for a few hours after a run. In the worst case, the pain in my feet becomes excruciating for several days and my ankles swell up. Even some of the cardiovascular equipment at the gym designed for neutral impact on joints and muscles seems to give me minor inflammation. I am not that fragile, I tell myself. If I am going to work out then I need to work out, damn it. The last advice my doctor is going to give me is to stop exercising. I need to stay in shape and I need good muscle mass to avoid bone density loss as I age. The result of all this healthy physical activity is that I may live to see age 90. Yet it looks like in order to attain this milestone, I must spend inordinate amounts of time exercising when I do not want to do so and eating foods I do not want to eat while dealing with periodic bouts of chronic pain. I suspect if I reach age 90, it will be because I am chained to a treadmill.

I try to comfort myself by thinking, “Well, it could be worse.” There are plenty of examples around me. My wife deals with ten times the physical problems that I do. Somehow, she manages, though she spends much of her life in doctor’s offices and in pain. Watching her go through her issues may be contributing toward my anxieties. Wanting to avoid her issues, I feel like I need to do more of whatever she is not doing.

I can now clearly see my future. I was attached to my mother by umbilical cord before I was born. In my future, I will be attached not just to my doctor, but also to a whole network of specialists and care providers who will charge hefty fees to poke, probe and analyze my body so I will bitch less about my aches and pains. I want the body I had when I was 25, not the body I have now with its middle-aged aches and maladies. I pine for that body. Intellectually I realize I will never have that body again. Emotionally, I refuse to believe it.

When you turn 50, you consent to intrusive tests that you would never have agreed to at 25. Last month I endured a colonoscopy. The risk of colon cancer rises dramatically at age 50. The preparations for the tests were worse than the actual procedure. There was actually one fun part: being put under anesthesia. I was only under for 45 minutes while some extremely advanced gadget danced through my large intestine taking pictures. Nevertheless, I slept with the intensity of a baby. I wished an anesthesiologist could put me to bed every night.

The evidence is overwhelming. I am entropy in action. I can try to make the best with the body I have at this age, but it is unlikely to improve over time. It is likely to get worse. I will find relief in prescriptions but they bring only temporary relief. I need to accept that I am an older American. I need to think, not just about my retirement but about dying and death. I need to ponder what it means to be finite and adjust the rest of my life accordingly. That I cannot seems to cause cognitive dissonance that just makes my problems seem worse.

“It doesn’t get any better,” my sanguine brother in law told me last summer. At age 57 his face is dropping and his joints hurt most of the time. The feeling that he is Dorothy trapped in the Wicked Witch’s castle watching sand move quickly through the hourglass weighs heavily on his mind too.

Perhaps this is why men with the means look for much younger wives. Sometimes I think if Dennis Kucinich, age 61, can attract a babe half his age to be his lawfully wedded wife, maybe I should ditch the one I have too. For if they, being youthful, can love me in spite of my middle age aches and conditions, then perhaps some of their youthful pixie dust will rub off on me, and I will feel spry and youthful again too.

Fortunately, these are fleeting feelings. Age may just be a number, but aging has undeniable consequences. No red headed thirty-year-old vixen can change the fact that I am an aging American. I need to accept my reality and try to make the best of it. I sometimes dully wonder if some virtues will rise that will compensate for my aging. Perhaps I will find them in time.

Right now, I just want the dull pain in my lumbar region to recede.

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.

Glycemic Junk Science

Let us add this report to the list of studies that really do not tell us anything, but do sell newspapers.

When it comes to losing weight, the number of calories you eat, rather than the type of carbohydrates, may be what matters most, according to a new study.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest that diets low in “glycemic load” are no better at taking the pounds off than more traditional — and more carbohydrate-friendly — approaches to calorie-cutting.

The concept of glycemic load is based on the fact that different carbohydrates have different effects on blood sugar. White bread and potatoes, for example, have a high glycemic index, which means they tend to cause a rapid surge in blood sugar. Other carbs, such as high-fiber cereals or beans, create a more gradual change and are considered to have a low glycemic index.

If you put 8 gallons of gas in your car and it gets 20 miles to the gallon, you can expect the car to go 160 miles, plus or minus a bit. It is the energy in the gasoline, the terrain and traffic your car will traverse, and the efficiency of your car in transferring that energy into work that determines how far your car will go.

Your body is an engine too. It is unimaginably more complex than an automobile, but it is still an engine. When you ingest food, its calorie content is translated into amount of energy that your body will receive. If you take in more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. If you take in fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. At its most pragmatic level, it’s just math:

Future weight = current weight + ( some constant x ( calories in – calories expended ) )

If you choose 400 calories to come from donuts made with refined sugar and bleached flour as opposed to 400 calories from a high fiber, low glycemic cereal, you are still consuming the same amount of energy.

You can get fat by eating all healthy foods; you just have to eat enough of it. If you gorge yourself on enough salads, you will gain weight. Given the low density of calories per serving with salad, it is much harder to gain weight this way, but it is still possible. That is in part why dieticians recommend consuming whole foods.

Why does a study like this make the news? I think it is because so many of us who are overweight or obese are still hoping, in vain, for a painless method to weight loss. Right now diets emphasizing low glycemic foods, like the South Beach Diet, are in.

Now there are some upsides to eating foods with a lower glycemic index. Most likely these food are healthier for your body. A donut does not have much in the way of nutritional value because most of the good parts, like the fiber, have been removed. Whole foods in general are likelier to have more fiber as well as more vitamins and minerals than junk food. (Many junk foods though are needlessly fortified.) Eating many of these foods may technically be better for your body. It may provide more of what the body needs to carry out vital things like replacing blood cells. Nevertheless, by itself they cannot be a solution to weight loss.

If you want to lose weight, you already know what to do: take in fewer calories than you will burn and exercise more. Exercise burns more calories, but if you eat more calories to make up for the increased exercise you are not going to lose weight.

The real root of our obesity epidemic is that American capitalism has succeeded in creating foods that we crave, and making them readily available at inexpensive prices. Our behavior is not that different from my cat’s behavior. He has his high fiber, nutritionally optimized cat food, which does not taste good. (This is probably just as well, or he would eat more of it and get fat.) On the other hand, he can grub for handouts at mealtime, which is one of his favorite hobbies. He eats the cat food if he has to, but he does not prefer it. Unlike my housecat though, you do not have these restrictions. You can satisfy your cravings with out much difficulty.

As part of my own healthy eating strategy, I do my best not to bring the foods that I crave into my house in the first place. Having them readily available simply adds to my temptation to succumb and consume them. This strategy is not easy. When I hit the grocery store, the shelves are replete with things I want to eat. It takes discipline to avoid purchasing the sorts of foods I want but should not eat. (It helps to go after a meal.)

If you truly want to lose weight then you had better count those calories and understand portion sizes. You need to join Weight Watchers or some group like it; peer pressure can be a terrific motivator. You have to incorporate healthy practices into your life and be consistent about it. Nonetheless, your human nature and society will conspire to trip you up. Life may seem a lot less joyful by disciplining yourself this way, but it is the only way to be healthy. Nothing comes free. If you want a thin and healthy body, you have to consume a lot less and exercise a whole lot more. If you cannot make this choice then be prepared for host of preventable maladies as you age.

Now, I am off to the gym.

A Pit Stop in the Adventure of Weight Loss and Healthy Living

The good news is that since the start of the year I have lost about twenty pounds. The bad news is that I need to lose at least another ten pounds. Ideally, I should lose an additional ten pounds. If so perhaps I could again wear the same suit that I wore at my wedding.

My likelihood of my success? I hate to handicap my own odds but I will feel very fortunate if I can get down to a body mass index (BMI) where technically I no longer fall under the stigma of being overweight.

These days I feel good and think I look good too. I can slip into size 36 jeans again without effort. I get regular and sustained exercise. I eat better. In addition, with some effort, I am maintaining my weight. Depending on whose BMI scale you use, I may be on the high end of having a healthy BMI.

My daughter tells me of a saying at her high school about those brainiacs who managed to go to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. This is a state chartered school in Alexandria, Virginia for the region’s most promising high school students. “School, friends or sleep. Pick two of the three.” This is similar to being a middle age adult with low metabolism working at a sedentary job. “Job, exercise or personal/family time. Pick two out of three.” So far, I have been picking three out of three. Maybe this explains why my weight loss has plateaued.

I continue to bike to work. This time of year, I drive the three miles to work more often than bike them. Part of it is explained that I take the car to get to the gym after work. Afternoon thunderstorms in the summer are more likely than not, which makes even getting home in the evening chancy. Over the last few weeks, aided by rampant global warming, the temperatures have predictably been on the extreme side. The stagnant hot air usually means bad air quality. Biking to work may actually make me less healthy. Now that we are in August, the weather slowly becoming more bearable. I still go to the gym three to four days a week after work. The routine consists of 30-60 minutes of aerobics, usually on an elliptical machine, followed by a half hour or so of weight training.

Thursday at the gym one of many personal trainers wandering around accosted me. He talked me into coming in for an assessment yesterday. I had a good idea of where he was going: he would want to sell me personal training sessions. Steve made a logical case. He told me that I had to continually break down different muscle sets. This way my muscles would be continuously rebuilding and I would continually build muscle mass too. As a side effect, even at rest I would have a higher metabolism and burn more calories. Moreover, I would feel better, have higher self-esteem, be attractive to babes and maybe get a pony. We went through a sample workout together. I have to admit he definitely stretched muscles I did not even know existed. Nevertheless, I was not sure I wanted to cough up $400 a month for meeting with a personal trainer four times a week.

Steve asked how serious I was about fitness. Well Steve, it was you who solicited me out, not the other way around. I said I was six on a scale of ten. My goal is not to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least when he was still lifting weights. (Poor Arnold has let most of it turn to flab. See what getting married does to a man?) My goal was to maintain a healthy weight level and good muscle tone. Steve could not promise me I would end up weighing less, just that I would add muscle weight and lose body fat. There was nothing wrong with the goal, but essentially, it meant I would have to turn into a body-obsessed exercise machine. I would need to commit to spending more time at the gym and endlessly worrying about toning various kinds of muscle groups.

Then there was the usual advice to eat less, or at least differently. I have already tried all sorts of variants. What I have discovered is that these helpful suggestions just do not work for me. I cannot remember to eat when I am not hungry nor do I particularly want to remember. I actually prefer to feel hunger pangs before eating. Nor can I remember to keep guzzling from a water bottle all day long. I am sure I do need more water, but I have weak enough kidneys as it is. Must I be shuffling off to the restroom every hour on the hour?

I would rather have two larger meals a day than four or five small meals. I would like a strategy where I can eat smaller portions of things I enjoy at times that seem natural to me. Instead, to lose weight and maintain optimal health I must constantly think about food, water and exercise until it becomes all-consuming. What kind of life is that? For me this exacerbates the problem by making it a larger problem in my life than I feel it deserves.

I have gotten lots of advice on weight loss and exercise over the years. I have talked to doctors, dieticians, personal trainers, psychologists, relatives, friends, and coworkers. Maybe soon I will turn to mystics and gurus. Each has snippets of insight, but there is no one size fits all solution to weight loss and health. It amounts to what you are willing to do with the limited time you have available. It certainly does help if you have more willpower than the average person does. In addition, it does not hurt to have a support group. For most of us who have not grown up being physically active, all this sensible advice amounts to cajoling yourself to work at variance to your body’s natural patterns every day for the rest of your life.

It means smaller meals when your body wants larger meals. It means exercise on days even when you simply want a day for rest and peace and quiet. It means telling yourself that yes it really is more important to spend a couple hours in the gym rather than sort through the family finances, which also has to get done. It amounts to willpower: your ability to force yourself to do things you do not want to do.

I will measure success in the short term my maintaining my twenty-pound weight loss. I keep measuring my weight every Sunday morning and try to fine-tune my eating and exercise based on what the scale reveals. Then I hope I can summon the energy to go further. I know what it will take and it is guaranteed not be easy. I will need to coax my body into eating less than what I need to maintain my weight. Moreover, I will have to push myself to do even more exercise on a more regular basis.

For now, I take some pride and sense of accomplishment from dropping twenty pounds in eight months and keeping it there. This was, in fact, one of the strategies recommended by Heather. She is the dietician I saw during the spring. Time will tell whether her advice was better than all the others out there selling me health solutions.

Adventures in Weight Loss and Healthy Living

Yesterday found me back in the office of my dietician Heather. As readers may recall, Heather is helping me change my diet so I can keep losing weight and lead a healthy second half of my life. Changing eating habits is not an easy task. Yesterday’s appointment was a chance to tell her how her suggestions were working. The truth was that I was having mixed success. I had managed to take off three or four pounds, but that was over two months. Habits are hard to change, and eating habits are some of the toughest ones.

I used to have three eggs for breakfast. They would easily carry me over to noon, but likely contributed to my cholesterol problem. Now I eat a cup of Kashi cereal with a cup of 1% milk for breakfast. Along with the breakfast, I consume the protein Heather wants me to eat at every meal, so I added two ounces of pressed ham. This carried me through lunch and is only 360 calories.

Drink more water, Heather told me. The only thing is I do not feel particularly thirsty. It is hard to remember to do things like this routinely while the email is streaming in and out and while I am editing web pages. So once again, I made it to noon forgetting to hydrate myself.

Today I was only mildly hungry for lunch, until I actually started eating. I skipped the salad topped with nuts that she recommended, since I knew there was plenty of salad at home that I could have with dinner. Therefore, I bought just a cup of chicken vegetable soup from the cafeteria. It was about 100 calories. I added a zero fat but very tasty Granny Smith apple. 80 calories. 180 calories for lunch so far, but I was still hungry. I reached above my desk for my handy supply of crackers. The six Cheddar Cheese crackers were 200 calories. 740 calories so far.

During the afternoon, I felt snackish. Heather had recommended a box of raisins. They are very sweet and very tasty, and have only 130 calories. Raisins are now my favorite snack, so down the hatch they went. Later, as I waded my way through another conference call the snack monster hit again. I reached for the low fat granola bar. 180 calories. Total calories so far today: 1040.

With work over, I headed to the Gold’s Gym. I exercised for thirty minutes on the elliptical machine which listening to NPR on my headset. Then it was off to use the weight machines. I pressed 90 pounds on the vertical press, 3 sets, and 15 repetitions with each set. On the Leg Extension, I pressed 115 pounds, same counts and repetition. 165 pounds on the Dip Machine. 130 pounds on the Ab Machine. 200 pounds on the Adductor. 80 pounds and 12 repetitions on the rowing machine. I can only guess how many calories I burned. Supposedly, I burned close to 500 calories on the elliptical machine, but I suspect the real amount is a lot lower than that. There is no way to measure calories on all those weight machines, but I can definitely say they were all challenging. I am guessing I burned about 500 calories at the health club today.

I went home and after a shower, I contemplated dinner. I was in a Boston Market mood tonight so I fetched one of their turkey dinners from our freezer. This is the tastiest 360 calories I can find in a prepared dinner, which is probably a sign they have too much fat per serving. I added a small salad, which cannot be more than 75 calories. Afterwards, a banana looks inviting: 105 calories. Time for dessert: three Special K bars (90 calories each) and a cup of 1% milk to wash them down. I am up to 1960 calories.

It was time to head upstairs and blog. At least I knew what to blog about today. I bring three sugar free (but alas, not calorie free) candies for a total of 50 calories. Total calorie intake for one day: 2010 calories.

Heather tells me a big man like me (six foot, two inches) needs about 2400 calories a day to maintain my weight. In addition I need 30 minutes a day of exercise to maintain my weight and more to actually lose weight. Between the exercise and the calories consumed. I think I lost weight today. The hardest part of weight loss is simply keeping it up, day after relentless day. Food ranks right up there with sex in life’s greatest pleasures. To diminish this pleasure is surprisingly hard.

Counting calories with every serving, (her latest suggestion) definitely helps. Trying to figure out if I am eating sensible portions is tougher. I started out well back in February. I wondered if I could have spaghetti with dinner and still not exceed the portions of protein and carbohydrates she wanted me to have with dinner. I had to weigh the whole grain pasta on a scale, and four servings was not a lot of pasta. Three ounces of protein (but no more) at every meal is very easy to get. It amounts to four frozen turkey balls that I threw into the spaghetti sauce. The result was tasty but underwhelming in quantity and I had already hit my carbohydrate quota for the meal.

The body, or at least my body, wants more. It likes my weight just fine. It does not understand my obsession with Body Mass Index. “Don’t you know I’m trying to store extra fat, just in case there is a famine?” it is yelling at me. I know all the strategies, but integrating them altogether is, frankly, just another damned chore in a day full of damnable chores. Knowing how many calories are in my “standard” breakfast and lunch help. I can then plan dinner accordingly. However, with dinner I also need to balance calories with standard portions. It all amounts to the same classic dieting advice: eat less and exercise more.

Ah, exercise. That has been a challenge of late. A couple weeks ago, I broke a toe in my left foot, which put the kibosh on exercise. It was not that I did not try to exercise. At the time, I did not know my toe was broken. I figured it was just “sprained”. In fact, I did the stupid male thing and exercised anyhow. It resulted in bruising which spread to my other toes. I tried carefully biking to work: same effect. Next, I spent a week in Denver on business. There I was up before 7 a.m. and rarely retired to my hotel room before 8 p.m. There was little opportunity to exercise but at this point, I had figured it out: do not even bother until the bruises disappeared.

I was certainly mindful of the food temptations while in Denver. The Club Lite sandwich at the local deli near the Denver Federal Center tasted great. I am sure it was low fat, but it was hard to guess how many calories I was consuming. In the morning, the hotel put out a huge complementary breakfast bar billed with eggs, greasy sausages, hash browns, juices, waffles, donuts and muffins. If you looked for it, you could also find bran cereal, skim milk and fruits. I started out well but by the end of the week, I had succumbed to a muffin or two with breakfast. My dinners did not appear to be highly caloric, but their calorie content was impossible to ascertain. Because I was getting virtually no exercise because of my injury, I felt I would be lucky if I did not gain any weight during the trip.

I am home and back on my normal schedule. It is easier to follow a diet. In our modern world though it is not easy to constantly monitor a sensible diet, get the exercise your body requires, work a productive day in a sedentary job and pay attention to your significant others. Those four activities along with sleep can consume a whole day. No wonder losing weight is so hard in our culture. However, further weight loss will simply require both rigorous vigilance to my diet and upping my exercise. Now that spring is finally here and I can bike to work most days I can easily add additional exercise. After seeing the podiatrist about my toe today, I also know that I can exercise with my feet again. Exercises that hurt like running though are still out.

I wish I could be like Wendy. Wendy is a woman I traveled with last year. She is forty something, blonde, trim, in shape and consequently quite attractive. She is also a vegetarian. She has the sensible eating thing down to a science. At the hotel breakfast, she happily consumed just cup of oatmeal. She grabbed an apple and consumed it later in the morning. She staggers her eating during the day with snacks. She makes it all looks so effortless, which I suspect it actually is to her. In addition, she makes time for exercise every day no matter what. On that trip, it meant getting up at 6 a.m. and hitting the hotel’s exercise room. I figure if she can do it, so could I. The real question is can I do this relentlessly and for pretty much every day for the rest of my life? Why do I have to do it but the French do not? How do they stay so fit and trim, eat fatty foods, have so little heart disease, smoke, philander and yet live into their nineties?

I do not know these answers but I can see the appeal of living in France now. I have been getting regular exercise for a quarter of a century, but apparently it is not enough. My body is going to require a lot of persuasion. 49 years of eating habits are excruciatingly hard to change permanently.

The brownies my daughter unwisely baked were still on the kitchen counter this evening. I looked at that last brownie in the pan lustfully, then calculated that if I ate it, it would add close to 500 calories to my diet.

Reluctantly, I put it back in back the pan and reached for the Special K bars instead.

Advice from Heather

Yesterday I saw a dietician. I mentioned to my doctor at my physical last month that I was having a difficult time maintaining a healthy weight. He suggested seeing a dietician. With obesity rampant in this country, you would think it would be easy to find a dietician. It is not. I have looked in the Yellow Pages before to no avail. He said you find them at hospitals. The only one around where I live with dieticians that saw people on an outpatient basis was Reston Hospital. To see a dietician, I had to schedule my appointment about a month in advance.

Fortunately, I am not obese. However, I am overweight. Like most people, I have tried a couple fad diets, as well as tried upping the exercise and cutting the calories. Each approach worked for a while. Eventually, and sometimes it took a few years, something would happen. It would be easy to say I was getting lazy, or lacked the willpower, but it truly was more than that. This latest weight gain was doubtless exacerbated by my wife’s annual holiday baking cycle. Generally, I have more willpower when junk food is not in the house. When it is constantly in my face, I can easily lose willpower.

I have written about diet and exercise before. Gone are the days where most of us can burn away excess calories through on the job physical activity. If you are like me, you spend your days doing anything but that. Hey, I am a white-collar dude. If I did not walk up the stairs, the most calorie intensive thing I would do at work would be lifting my phone’s receiver. Therefore, I must make time for exercise. I bike to work when weather permits, which is about six months a year. I also hit the gym about three times a week. When I have the time and the weather is nice, I take long bike rides. Yet apparently, I was still eating too much. On the other hand, much of the time I was eating too much of the wrong stuff. These little extra calorie habits, even with regular and vigorous exercise, have a cumulative effect.

So there I was at Reston Hospital registration, getting a band around my wrist as if I were going in for major surgery. Instead, I walked a couple hundred feet down the hall to see Heather. Of course, the dietician is named Heather. I bet there are no dieticians named Gertrude. Naturally, Heather was about five feet three, and weighed about ninety-eight pounds soaking wet. Moreover, she was half my age and stunningly attractive. Considering I had to meet a deductible because the appointment was at the hospital, instead of a co-pay, perhaps I shouldn’t complain about this fringe benefit.

It is all about portion control, Heather told me. Yeah, I knew that I told her. However, I am not the type to sit there and measure 15 grams of carbohydrates at a meal. I am a busy guy. I need to have a plan that will work with me. I need to stick to the same foods during the week, and the foods need to be foods that I will mostly enjoy. Otherwise, after too much deprivation I am going to slip.

She said she would work with me. We also made an appointment for early April so that we could meet again to assess progress and perhaps change the diet. She complemented me on the eight pounds I took off during the last month (not without the usual grumbling) and warned me the weight loss would probably slow.

Yes, success at dieting and maintaining a weight in the end takes hard work and perseverance. Most diets fail, she told me, because we set our expectations too high. Step one is to take off 10% of body weight and maintain it for four to six months. Then, if you want, work at taking off another increment. This is a formula for success. You can get to the summit of the mountain, but you will want to take a couple rest breaks on the way there to make it.

I thought I had read a lot about nutrition. Yet I am still glad that I took the time and considerable expense to consult with a dietician. For I still learned a lot from Heather. I knew about good carbs and bad carbs. However, I did not know about the importance of having protein with every meal. I never gave it a second thought. I usually saved my protein for the evening meal. Protein with any meal will help stave off hunger, Heather told me.

I also thought I was being good by skipping lunch on the weekends. After all, I was not eating until 9 AM or so. Wrong, she said. Eat three meals a day every day. Include proteins and carbohydrates at every meal. You can even enjoy snacks. Just make sure you balance the carbohydrates, protein and fats. Do the usual good things. Avoid high fat foods. Try 1% instead of 2% milk. Make sure your breads have whole grains. And of course limit portions. Needless to say, what you get at most American restaurants do not qualify as normal portions, unless you are a sumo wrestler.

Looking at what was working for me the last month she made some changes. Add food to my breakfast, she told me. A bran cereal is fine; its energy will be absorbed slowly. Using 1% milk is better than 2%. Add those sugar substitutes if you want sweetness. Also, add fruit to the meal if you want. However, make sure you add a serving of low fat meat. This is not a problem; we have plenty of pre-sliced low fat turkey and ham.

If I feel the need for a mid morning snack (I rarely do) try a granola bar (without the fruit filling), or a piece of fruit, or a small box of raisins, or even crackers with peanut butter. Of course, limit yourself to one portion, which might be the size of what you can put your fist.

For lunch, if soup and a salad are working for me now, she recommended keeping at it. Nevertheless, dress the salads up with proteins from sources like beans and nuts. She said to keep eating an apple with lunch as I am doing. It has lots of fiber and no fat. She said I could even add some starchy choices with lunch. A six-pack of crackers works for me but pretzels are even better. If I feel the need for an afternoon snack, the same morning snacks will work for afternoon snacks. Or I could try different types for variety.

During dinner she said I needed to limit myself to four starchy choices, each about 15 grams of carbohydrates each. She said to make sure I got three servings of protein, and lean meat is better. Add as many vegetables as you want, and you can have one fat choice. Of course, a fat choice is not very large. One teaspoon of olive oil is one good fat choice.

This is my diet based on my age and height, so these may not necessarily work for you. Meanwhile, she said not to slack off on the exercise. Do more exercise if I can find the time. It will not hurt, but I should still take off weight regardless. If I can do this I will naturally get the calories I need, and the exercise will help me lose weight.

As for fad diets, Heather said to ignore them. They are all a waste of time because they can only work for a while. That was my experience with the South Beach Diet and the Carbohydrate Addicts Diet. I have seen the same result with others I knew who were on the Atkins diet. Vary your diet, Heather told me. Eat foods that you naturally enjoy, but eat less of them and prefer those lower in calories and fat. Just stay within the portion limits for any given meal.

Perhaps I have finally found a diet that will work for me for life. Time will tell. I know that Heather will be there to help me succeed. She said to make sure to call her if I have questions or am having trouble sticking to the diet. She will help me rework the diet into something I can live with.

My wife scoffed when I told her I was going to see a dietician. “It won’t work for me,” she told me. “There is nothing they can tell me that I do not know.” I knew most of this too going in, but I still was not able to put it altogether. Thanks to Heather, I believe I now have now I have a plan I can live with. And I plan on living well to a very ripe age.

No Escape from Exercise

There is a disquieting and endemic aspect to the American character. It is our inherent belief (right even) that tells us we can have it both ways. We believe that the normal laws of the universe do not apply to us. The piper does not have to be paid. At worst, we can defer the piper indefinitely. If we need more evidence of this, we simply have to look at the so-called fiscal conservatives in our Republican controlled Congress. The solution to all our problems seems to have it both ways: charge up the national credit card and let our grandchildren worry about it. No more of this guns or butter crap. It’s guns and butter all the time! Woo hoo!

Sadly, we Americans seem to be as addicted to the promise of getting something from nothing as a junkie is to his next fix. We believe in the laughably ridiculous. After all, are we not God’s chosen nation? Therefore, we line up like lemmings to buy lottery tickets. In addition, when we read that we can lose two to three pounds per week by eating pork rinds (just skip the carbohydrates) how can we resist? Eat filet mignon for dinner every night and we will still grow skinnier.

We learn today that this latest diet craze went bust. Atkins Nutritionals, a company formed by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, entered bankruptcy court on Sunday. Whether the company, which promotes the Atkins diet, will emerge from Chapter 11 remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: the American people have tried Atkins and we do not like it anymore. It was okay for a while. Steak for dinner every night sounded great. However, it was not the same without that baked potato slathered in sour cream. Yes, million have lost weight on the Atkins Diet. Nevertheless, most of them eventually put the weight back, often adding more. It seems we do not have the willpower to say no to carbohydrates forever. Eventually the body says enough and we are buying boxes of Krispy Kremes. Reputedly, even the good Dr. Atkins succumbed. The rumor is that Dr. Atkins died obese.

It is true that buried in the Atkins diet book was that little and rarely read caveat to the diet: eat normal portions and (like any diet book I have ever read) exercise regularly. In other words, eat less and exercise more. Our American brains though translate this into “Don’t exercise at all and eat the same, or more, of something you don’t normally eat.”

I have only tried a couple diets. The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet did not do a darn thing for me. A variant of it, the South Beach Diet took off five pounds quickly. However, I found after a couple months on it I could not keep to it. So eventually, I went back to the most difficult but most reliable method of weight control ever invented: eat less and exercise more.

Exercise more. Exercise a lot more. The truth about weight loss is that it is not so much about food as it is about exercise. It should be obvious: if you eat like a pig on any diet, you are not going to lose weight. Nevertheless, there is rarely a downside to exercising. As long as you are sensible about it and work your way up gradually longer toward exercises, you are likely to reap the rewards, including weight loss.

The Washington Post recently reported some tips from dieters who managed to lose lots of weight and keep it off:

Nutrition fads come and go. Successful losers report reaching a healthier weight the old-fashioned way: They count calories, reduce calorie-dense food and move a lot more.

Nearly half of those in the national registry reported losing weight entirely on their own. The rest got assistance from commercial weight-loss programs, a physician or a nutritionist. “Over the years, I tried a lot of different things — Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers a couple of times, different combinations of diets in magazines,” said Melissa Glassman, a lawyer who practices in Tysons Corner. “I could always lose 10 to 20 pounds, but would always gain back more than that.”

It was only by changing her habits that Glassman shed 125 pounds — half her body weight — in the past couple of years. “It’s the little things that you incorporate into your daily life that help keep you on track,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be entirely about deprivation or exercising two hours a day.”

The Post reports what you probably know in your heart too but also have a hard time admitting. Dieters who manage to keep the weight off have learned there are no quick fixes. To succeed you have to develop a viable long-term strategy that works for you and stick with it. Another successful step according to these dieters: be active. That means you will not succeed in long-term weight loss by spending your leisure hours watching television. The Post reports that those who were successful with long-term weight loss had a number of other successful strategies. They include tracking your weight, enlisting support, and setting small goals.

I do not know of anyone who has succeeded in long-term weight loss that has done so by being a couch potato. You have to exercise. In addition, you have to exercise regularly (i.e. most days). It needs to be real exercise. Much of it needs to be aerobic in nature. It can be as simple as walking. Walking is a terrific form of exercise with virtually no downsides. It does not matter too much what form of aerobic exercise you choose, so pick one (or a few) that you really enjoy.

Until recently, my favorite form of exercising was biking. It eventually messed up my feet, but that was only because I did not think about the consequences before I started. I went overboard, biking 30 miles or more in tennis shoes. Now I have proper biking shoes and my feet are finally feeling better. I am hitting the biking trail again. Since I am fortunate to live three miles from my place of employment, biking to work is an easy way for me to get exercise. Nevertheless, by itself biking is not enough. Six miles of biking a day is just 30-40 minutes of exercise. The human body really needs more exercise than that. My sedentary job means that I need to do more. Therefore, I supplement it with 2-4 escapes to the Gold’s Gym a week. In addition, I look for other ways to incorporate exercise in my life. I climb four flights of stairs to get to my office instead of taking the elevator. If there is a hiking trail off the biking trail, I will stop and go for a hike too.

As I mentioned recently, we have bodies that are meant to move. Use every excuse to move your body. If you do not have any then invent them. Make the time. Yes, I know your life is busy. You may have rug rats at home, and junior has to go to soccer practice. Do it at 4:30 a.m. if you have to. Do it after the kids go down. Help them with their homework while you work out on an elliptical machine. Do not make excuses, just do it.

Here is what I think: the goal of weight loss is not to look better. The goal of weight loss is to be healthy. Therefore, you probably need to eat better. Equally important you need to exercise more. You can stay in denial if you wish. You can hope for that new miracle drug. However, even if you never lose a pound you will feel so much better simply by getting regular exercise. You can start by literally walking the walk.

Pumping and Preening at the Gold’s Gym

For the most part we customers of the Gold’s Gym believe in denying our mortality. We believe that with enough regular exercise and the proper diet we can become immortal. Death becomes something that only happens to flawed people — you know those wimps that don’t visit the gym regularly for real tough workouts. The corporate slogan for Gold’s Gym is “Serious Fitness”. That’s us. We don’t make excuses. We make the time to stay fit.

Well, perhaps this is not entirely true in my case. For me, finding time for exercise is a constant battle and a set of tradeoffs to be weighed. On a good week I am at the gym four times. On a bad week, such as when I am dealing with my aging parents, I make it there twice. And I am not sure I would be a customer of the Gold’s Gym at the Clocktower in Herndon, Virginia at all had not a whole lot of other options closed on me. For much of this year and last my primary form of exercise has been biking. Before that I ran regularly. Twenty years of running took its toll. After a run my knees regularly hurt and my ankles were often swollen. Biking was fun and liberating and a great substitute for running. But I never gave a thought to buying bike cleats or wearing biking shoes. I am sure all that high speed, long duration biking contributed to my foot problems. In recent months they have become so severe that often even wearing sandals hurt. It is only now, for reasons I don’t understand, that my feet are starting to feel normal again. With biking and running momentarily out there aren’t a lot of exercise options.

So patronizing a local gym started to look better and better. In my last job I had access to a health club in the hotel across the street. It cost me less than $30 a month. At the time it was a godsend, particularly since my boss had no problem with my taking extended lunch hours if necessary to accommodate my fitness needs. My current employer does not have a health club. It does however provide a subsidy for a health club, 50% or $200 a year, whichever is smaller. With the subsidy my effective cost for a gym dropped to under $20 a month. So I enrolled and hoped I could make up there for the exercise I could no longer get through running and biking.

In the prosperous part of Fairfax County, Virginia where I live there are a lot of health club options. Every gym seems to have its niche market. I settled on the Gold’s Gym for a number of pragmatic reasons. First, it was reasonably close to work and home: about two miles. Second, it is huge. Reputedly this gym is the biggest Gold’s Gym on the East Coast. Lastly I like the idea of “serious fitness”. Although I can’t quite see myself bulking up on protein shakes I wasn’t interested in a health club where the majority of the patrons wore spandex. I wanted a place where I could get a good aerobic workout and where I could find plenty of weight machines. Neither are problems at this Gold’s Gym. I have been in the gym at the height of their rush hour (early evenings) and I have yet to see all the elliptical machines in use. They must have thirty or forty elliptical machines alone. Elliptical machines are what my middle age body needs: a good way to bring up the heart rate but kind on the joints.

There is a lot to like about this Gold’s Gym. For a gym that many of us picture as a place where the local muscle guys meet to bench press hundreds of pounds at a time, this particular gym is an immaculately clean and well maintained establishment that attracts plenty of women too. About a third of its patrons are female. It may be that my sense of smell is declining but I have to work to smell any body odor in the place. When you are done with a machine you are expected to clean it off. (They provide rags and a disinfectant you can use.) But even if you don’t bother someone from the cleaning staff will be around shortly to do it anyhow. Someone is always vacuuming, polishing, oiling, wiping machines and sanitizing the place. The men’s locker room never has even a whiff of sweat. The shower stalls never show any mold. So far at least all the restroom stalls have been impeccably clean.

At pretty much any time of day you can find trainers on the floor. They are pretty easy to identify, if not from their muscles, but from the word “trainer” on the back of their shirts. Often they are not busy so you can ask them questions. A standard membership comes with three personal training sessions a year. I already used my first one.

But unquestionably I am one of their older patrons. Mostly they seem to be twenty or thirty somethings. As a rule we patrons don’t talk much to each other. This is not a place you come to in order to socialize. You do your thing, usually with a headset on, and then you leave. However the gym is clearly designed to make sure you and your fellow patrons are easy to check out. It is on two levels. The upper level is more like an atrium. Around the atrium are most of the cardiovascular exercise machines. Suspended from the atriums are lots of very large televisions broadcasting a few major cable channels (including, of course, ESPN). Unless you tune your portable radio to the right frequency you have to depend on the close captioning. I find that I mostly ignore the TV. It’s all commercial TV anyhow. So it is better to stay plugged and listen to your MP3 player or just listen to local radio.

But while my heart rate cruises between 130 and 150 beats per minute on the elliptical machines it is still hard to tune out the humanity around me. No question about it: for the most part the people at this Gold’s Gym look good. Presumably most of them are also single or at least childless. I find it hard to see so many tight looking twenty something women and not let my mind wander into soft-core erotic fantasies. But I don’t suffer the illusion that anything would ever become of them. After all unless you bring a friend with you, you just don’t talk to fellow patrons beyond an “excuse me” if you both try to hit the water fountain at the same time.

Most of the patrons look like they don’t even need to be at the Gold’s Gym. Weight loss does not seem to be one of their issues. Rather these are pragmatic young adults who already have an impeccably balanced life. They cruise from machine to machine and soberly work through their routines.

This gym has some nice amenities. While it seems to attract the childless crowd, there is a children’s room. It’s a great place to dump a child for an hour or two while Mom or Dad gets their workout. Of course there are plenty of aerobics and dance classes for those so inclined. And for guys who still like to play basketball there is a full sized basketball court available. Alas, my knees will no longer tolerate it.

Although people seem to be there for serious fitness, I have to wonder how many of them are also hoping to bump into Mister or Miss Right. Since overall they are a healthy and attractive lot this should be a prime place to find someone with similar values. (Hint to Gold’s Gym: start your own dating club.) And except possibly for myself, they don’t come to the gym dressed as slobs. Even the guys seem to wear something nicer than gym shorts and a T-shirt. Still there is nothing resembling a club on premises where you can chitchat with fellow patrons. There is though a nice front desk with a staff eager to say hello when you arrive and wish you a nice day when you leave. In the lobby area you can purchase various health foods, most of them high in protein and low in carbohydrates. It’s not unusual to find vendors parked out by the front desk offering tastes of their various healthy concoctions.

While I am more than a bit in awe of this gym, I wonder whether I will renew my membership when it expires. I can’t see stopping using a gym altogether. I see weight training as important as general aerobics toward maintaining my physical health. And it is cost prohibitive to purchase the kind of weight machines I would need at home. Not surprisingly, this gym has every conceivable weight machine. I could spend years working through all of them. Instead I concentrate on cycling through a dozen or so of the ones that do me the most good.

But perhaps I need a smaller gym. Perhaps I need a place where there are more people my own age. Perhaps I need a health club with a few sweat drops on the floors. This Gold’s Gym seems more than a bit surreal at times: the sort of health club you’d expect if June Cleaver were cleaning it. It is hard to imagine any health club that offers a better exercise environment. But perhaps I need a club with some spirit to it. For all its many advantages this club seems a soulless place.

My Eating and Exercise Strategies

In my last entry I decried how our culture seems to conspire to keep us fat. I suspect I won’t get too much sympathy. Our current culture poo poos victimization and emphasizes personal responsibility. Of course we control what we put into our mouths and how much we exercise. We make choices, for better or for worse, which determine our health. I chose to live in suburbia. As a consequence shopping is not convenient and generally I need to take a car. But I had other alternatives. I could have chosen to live in the city. Had I done this I would be doing a lot more walking. Perhaps as a consequence I would not even worry about gaining weight.

But if you are overweight or obese, or just want to not gain any more weight, what can you do that might actually work for you? I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I do have weight control strategies. You are welcome to take them for a test drive.

The formula for weight loss is pretty well known: eat less and exercise more. But how do you do this if you are a harried adult like myself stuck in the sandwich generation with lots of demands? How do you eat less when your body often craves more? How do you summon the willpower? My experience probably mirrors yours: willpower can be hard to come by. When it arrives it is not likely to hang around. I do not trust the Atkins Diet so have never tried it. I know people who have had great success with it but to me it seems dangerous. I’ve had better success with the South Beach Diet. I still use some of the strategies I learned when I was on the diet and they help. When starting out the diet emphasizes avoiding giving your body an insulin rush in the morning. It recommends eggs for breakfast. During the week that’s what I still do: scramble some eggs, add bacon bits or Canadian bacon. Just this carries me without hunger until lunch. Eggs have a fair amount of fat, but it’s a good kind of fat: and fat satiates the feeling of hunger very effectively. I do not add toast unless it is the weekend, when I often skip lunch. Usually the weekday morning finds me rushing to get my daughter to school and myself to work, so the lack of morning carbohydrates is not a hardship.

I also avoid juice. Juice may be healthy in many respects but it is full of sugar. The insulin rush will likely make me hungry. I see juice as empty calories. Instead, I drink light. Crystal Light, to be specific and lots of it. I prefer their lemonade. It has a tangy taste but has only five calories per serving. I drink it with every meal at home.

Lunch is tougher. I know I should bring a lunch to work with me but I make it my treat of the day, so I generally eat in the cafeteria at work. Usually I eat a bit heartier one day and less hearty the next. For light eating I choose a small Caesar salad (usually with honey mustard dressing, to avoid acid reflux) and the soup of the day. For a heavier lunch I go to the sandwich bar. I can choose lean meats but tuna salad is a low fat taste favorite, providing it is not mixed with much mayonnaise. However, eating too much tuna is risky so I limit it to once a week. I often substitute chicken salad but disclaim the extra mayonnaise the sandwich lady wants to add. Overall it is a decent blend of carbohydrates (assuming I ask for a hearty whole grain bread, which I always do), protein and not too much fat. Add the lettuce and tomatoes and vegetables become part of the meal too. No, it is clearly not an ideal lunch. Chicken salad is usually mixed with mayonnaise, but at least where I eat the mayonnaise is minimal. Of course I forgo the drinks and stick with plain water. I am not always successful in avoiding the snacks by the register however. Usually by lunch I am feeling hungry and want some glucose in my system. Particularly if I have afternoon meetings I find I need sufficient glucose in my system to keep me awake. I’ve been known to sleep with my eyes open in conference rooms.

Dinner is the challenge. If I made my own dinners it would be one thing, but we eat family dinners most nights. I usually insist on a large salad (even if I had one with lunch). Fortunately we don’t usually have a dessert. If I feel a sweet attack though I have a few strategies. One is sugarless candy. While they are certainly not calorie free, they avoid the insulin high that normally accompanies easily processed carbohydrates and consequently makes me want to eat more. Malt is used instead of sugar to give it a sweet taste. Special-K bars also work as an occasional treat.

With exercise more is almost always better. When weather permits I bike to work at a brisk pace: 6-7 miles a day. When it does not permit we have an elliptical machine in the basement and I spend at least half an hour on it when I get home from work. The ideal place for exercising is at a health club. In my last job I worked in Washington, D.C. and had a health club right across the street that I could join at a discount price. My boss at the time was liberal enough to allow long lunch hours so I could get sufficient exercise. The routine was pretty much the same: half an hour of aerobics and about half an hour of weight training. For the couple years it lasted it was great. I was buff. Exercising around lunch is great too because exercise usually leaves you less hungry than if you are sedentary.

But I don’t have the convenience of a gym at my new job. I do enjoy biking and can easily bike 20 miles or more on the weekend, when the weather permits. I know what I need to do up my exercise level: join a local Gold’s Gym and make the time 3-4 times a week to hang out there before and after work. But for the moment I haven’t resumed that habit. I have to figure out first what I will give up. As we all know there are only 24 hours in a day. Something has to give. I don’t know yet whether it will be my part time teaching, blogging, or one of my many other hobbies.

All this keeps my weight reasonably stable. There’s no question I put on a few pounds over the winter. (Biking was largely out and my running was destroying my joints.) With better weather now is the time to up the exercise level. But figuring what will work for my 48-year-old body is getting challenging.

You may want to try any of my strategies and see if they work for you.