Thursday, May 30, 2013

Chasing Calories With Exercise: A Fool’s Errand

Fr. Dale Matson

“What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (1st Corinthians 6:19)

This is a longitudinal look at my weight control efforts over the last twenty five years. Hopefully it will be instructive.  I weighed 160* pounds when I graduated from high school. In graduate school, my ‘elderly’ professor (she was probably in her mid-sixties), Dr. Fran Culbertson and I walked around a portion of the U.W. Whitewater campus after lunch. When we got back, she took the stairs and I took the elevator. I was frankly embarrassed that she was more fit than me.

During this same period, I was working at the county psychiatric hospital and chased after a patient who ran off the unit. After about four blocks, it was again obvious to me that I was in sorry shape since she only got smaller and smaller the further we both went. I guess she wasn't catatonic after all. I was close to catatonic  when I finally gave up chasing her.

After being out of construction for about four years, my sedentary academic life had taken a toll on my fitness and health.  I began walking and then running having ballooned up to 220 pounds from 180. Quitting smoking also contributed to the weight gain.
For the overweight sedentary person, there is a rather self-righteous and heady initial success at weight loss through exercise alone. Unfortunately, running is a gravity intensive activity. I had to run on dirt roads to avoid the shin splints and ankle pain that came with being in the ‘Clydesdale’ class of runner. Nike made a wonderful cushioned shoe called the ‘Air Max’. Most of the folks like me in the back of the pack wore that brand running shoe.

My weight began slipping away and I was down to 200 pounds. I seemed to get stuck at that point and went on the American Heart Association Diet. That got me down to about 190 pounds and at that weight I was able to build up my mileage as I trained for a marathon.

My problem with too many calories was still evident. I have met many runners who have stated quite candidly that they run to eat rather than eat to run. I got into trail and ultra-distance running and 60 mile weeks did the job with weight control. That is more than 7,000 exercise calories a week or about two pounds. In reality, that is what could be called purging through exercise.

The problem of course is that 60 miles weeks are for those who are young and the few folks biomechanically suited for running. Eventually problems emerge. For me, it was a pulled hamstring. Oops, the weight began to come back. This is when many runners decide to become triathletes. This allows the injured runner to keep burning calories while recovering from running injuries. It’s not as easy to be a triathlete if your drug of choice is running but adjustments can be made.

The problem is that the body is too good at adjusting to the routine. As they say, “You have to fool the body”. You eventually are able to gain weight even at 60 miles of running or the caloric equivalent in running, biking and swimming. It is no longer a zero sum game. This is where chasing calories with exercise simply no longer works. This is where the self-regulation and discipline of exercise needs to be applied to eating too.

I am a lifetime member of weight watchers and have learned what ‘normal’ portions are like. I have also learned about binge foods (mixed nuts for me), fiber, proper hydration, and eating till you are satisfied not full. I weigh in and record my weight daily.  Slow eating helps also. I’m retired, there is no rush. Intake is the key to weight control. It is easier to fix the faucet than mop up the puddle. Even if you did no exercise, you could maintain a steady weight with proper eating. Exercise because you want to, not because you have to just to manage your weight.

* I currently weigh 165 pounds. This suits this old man’s heart and lungs right down to the ground.
 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22)


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