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Health and Nutrition

Winning at Weight Loss

How to get healthy, lose weight, and keep it off

Laura Jones | September 4, 2013

It’s well accepted that being overweight and inactive increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, sleep disorders, and some cancers. It also decreases your quality of life and limits your mobility. But a 2002 report issued by the Federal Trade Commission concluded that more than half of all weight-loss advertisements are completely false. What’s an overweight person looking to drop some pounds to do?

Get on the Right Path

If you’re one such person, take a deep breath. You can improve your health by losing as little as 2 to 3 percent of your body weight; that’s only 4 to 6 pounds for a 200-pound person. To lose that weight and more, you don’t need a complex or expensive diet or a special exercise plan or equipment; you just have to expend more energy (calories) than you consume. And here’s how to do it:

  • Make the commitment.
  • Make a list of your reasons for weight loss and then find people, places, and groups to support them (such as your local Masters Swimming program)
  • Set concrete, achievable, specific, realistic, and forgiving goals for both the short and long term.
  • Eat healthier foods and replace bad habits with healthier ones. For example, if you eat too much at night, take a walk instead, write a letter, or practice an instrument.
  • Get active and stay active.
  • Know there will be setbacks and understand that’s okay.
  • Don’t be in a hurry for results; weight loss is a journey not a destination. Or, as the Chinese philosopher Confucius said: “It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.”
  • Log your results in a notebook, spreadsheet, or by using your USMS Fitness Log. You’ll see your progress in black and white, even if you don’t feel it.

Want more specifics? Don’t turn to diet books. According to Art Weltman, director of the exercise physiology graduate program at the University of Virginia, “The reason there are so many diets out there is because most diets don’t work for the long term. The weight loss industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, but because most weight loss programs promise a quick fix and don’t promote permanent lifestyle changes, the majority of individuals who lose weight using these programs gain all the weight back over time. Some diets work for some people, but not for most of society.”

Go Slowly

What does work? To lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit by consuming fewer calories than you burn. And to do this, you need to “make changes you can adhere to,” Weltman says. These changes need to incorporate physical activity and healthy, portion-controlled eating. This kind of strategy doesn’t lead to quick weight loss; weight loss that can be maintained only occurs slowly, often one-half pound a week or less, but it does lead to permanent weight loss. Weltman says one of the most important lifestyle changes a dieter can make is to eat a healthy diet that includes fiber-rich and colorful foods that are not calorically dense, along with high quality protein. Calorically dense foods include fruits and vegetables and less-refined grains. And you don’t have to be perfect all the time, either. “There will be occasions where you overeat, but if you don’t do it often, you’ll be fine,” says Weltman.

Exercise is also a crucial part of weight loss and a healthy lifestyle, Weltman explains. It maintains muscle mass and it protects against a range of diseases. Most importantly, it elevates your quality of life “even if you don’t ever achieve substantial weight loss.” It’s also “absolutely necessary to prevent weight gain and maintain any weight loss. While exercise by itself won’t cause a lot of weight loss, it will change the distribution of fat,” Weltman explains, moving it away from the risky, deep abdomen, a common depository location that has been shown to contribute significantly to the incidence of several chronic diseases.

Don’t Forget the Exercise

The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that to achieve “clinically significant weight loss” you need about 4 hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Weltman and others agree that these 4 hours don’t have to be packed into four, 1-hour sessions or even eight, half-hour sessions. You can take multiple 10-minute walks throughout the day to get it all in. In other words, it’s never “not worth it” to do a shorter exercise session. Of course, swimming can fulfill this requirement and can be an excellent partner in any weight loss journey. So can walking, jogging, cycling, and participating in exercise classes. With any exercise, the harder you work, the more calories you’ll burn, so ramp up the intensity to get more out of your exercise time.

Enjoy the Journey

There’s no shortcut, so take the time to learn new eating and physical activity habits and enjoy the rewards for the rest of your life. And although it’s great to be lean and active, being overweight and active is far better than being overweight and inactive. Fitness level is simply more important than what the scale reads, so even if the overall goal seems large, getting on the right path is more than half the battle.

The good news is that it even though it’s difficult to get started, the process will get easier with time. Think three years down the road, not three months, Weltman advises. Remember, weight loss requires a lifestyle change, not a seasonal change.

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About the Author—Laura Jones

Laura S. Jones, a lawyer by training, has written about sports, health, and science for a variety of publications since 2001. She's also the author of a short story collection, "Breaking and Entering," published in 2011. Jones is an avid, although not speedy, open water swimmer and particularly enjoys 5K and 10K ocean swims with her much faster husband, Rob. She'll occasionally humble herself with a 400IM or 500 free in a pool meet, and a triathlon or two.

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