Weight status may be the single most important predictor of health today. How close we are to our ideal body weight (IBW), may determine whether or not we hear our doctor talking about things like pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol or triglycerides. All of these are early symptoms that could lead to more serious health problems. And they can all be improved or eliminated by regular activity.
Determining an IBW can be tricky. Dietitians use a combination of formulas and common sense to set appropriate weight targets. This is necessary because our bodies change as we go through the lifecycle. And because of individual variation, everyone does not fit into a single IBW mold.
If you are overweight, start by setting an initial goal of losing 10% of your current weight. Studies show that 90% of health benefits can come from a 10% reduction in weight. Weight lost is more likely to stay off if we lose it gradually. So set your goal and make lifestyle changes that will result in one or two pounds per week of weight loss.
The first place to begin with lifestyle changes is to increase your daily activity. If you have been inactive for some time, ask your doctor if there are any limits on activity for you. Walking is the best thing most people can do to lose weight. And the good news is that walking provides many health benefits beyond weight loss.
When we start walking, our body begins using readily available energy floating in the blood in the form of glucose or blood sugar. In the first 20 minutes of walking, we are using blood sugar to fuel the activity. After that, we begin to gradually use more and more stored energy in the form of body fat for fuel. This is why the American Diabetes Association includes daily activity as an essential part of controlling diabetes. Walking will get us to our goal weight and in the process reduce our risk of diabetes.
Another source of energy floating in our blood is triglyceride. This is a form of fat that becomes elevated when we eat a lot of sweets, fried foods, drink too much alcohol and remain sedentary. It’s almost like triglycerides are a dashboard warning light that tells us to cut back on the “concentrated calories-sweets and fats” and get active. Our weight status is a function of the calories we consume in foods versus the calories we use in activity. To lower triglycerides and lose weight, we want to work both sides of the equation: Replace high calorie foods with lower calorie choices and increase our daily activity. Lifestyle changes are often difficult to maintain. Get your walking routine established. Then start making healthier food choices. If you drink, limit alcohol to 1-2 drinks per day.
Being overweight tends to increase the amount of LDL or “bad” cholesterol in your blood and this leads to an increased risk for heart disease. Getting your activity plan going will lower your weight and this will improve cholesterol levels. In fact the benefits of daily activity go well beyond improved cholesterol: better sleep, less stress, fewer aches and pains, less memory loss, improved mood… Need I go on?
Blood pressure is directly related to activity. Regular physical activity makes your heart stronger. A stronger heart pumps more blood with less effort. If your heart is working less to pump, the force on your arteries decreases, lowering your blood pressure. It takes about one to three months for regular exercise to have an impact on your blood pressure. The benefits last only as long as you continue to be active. That’s why this is called a lifestyle measure. Think of the changes you make as permanent changes to how you live your life.
So why is the dietitian nutritionist talking so much about activity? Our food choices matter. Focus on lower calorie choices and manage your serving sizes. But if you make no other lifestyle changes, daily walking can get you started on a path that leads to other changes. And besides, walking is a very pleasant thing to do this time of year.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.