In past lives, Dean Anderson has been a social worker, small business owner, college psychology and philosophy instructor, and world-class couch potato who weighed close to 400 pounds, smoked three packs and drank two six-packs of beer per day, and considered chocolate-peanut butter fudge a well-balanced meal. In this life, Dean earned a personal training certification from ACE, received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant, and began working for SparkPeople. He writes about attitude adjustment, motivation, men's health, and senior fitness. When not sitting in front of his computer, he can usually be found hiking or biking (he's the bald guy that everyone else is passing).
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This blog is the second half of my personal response to TIME’s recent article on “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.” In my last blog, I talked about the biological relationship between exercise and fat loss; here, we’ll be looking at whether there’s any truth to the claim that exercise causes excessive appetite and “compensatory” overeating, making fat loss more difficult.
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For those of you who like to cut straight to the bottom line, my answer to this question is: No.
There’s really no reason at all for you to be afraid of exercise if you want to burn fat and lose weight. Just the opposite, in fact. You will need to make sure your meal plan is right for your activity level and weight loss goal, and then stick to that amount of eating as well as you can. But exercise is simply not going to turn you into someone who can’t control your own appetite and eating behavior—unless, of course, that’s what you expect or want it to do.
For those of you who like to know more about the nuts and bolts, read on about the “soul of success”, and find out what can help you stay in charge of your eating no matter how much you exercise.
If you follow health and fitness news, you’ve probably seen the cover story in the current issue of TIME magazine: Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.
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Unfortunately, this article is riddled with headlines and statements that seem more designed to attract attention and readers than to provide useful information—a common problem in this age of declining readership. But if you can get past the sensational headlines and faulty logic (a connection between two things doesn't mean one causes the other), the actual information in the article is nothing new or surprising.
We’ve known for a long time that, while exercise is clearly one of the foundations of good physical and mental health, it is not by itself enough to produce substantial weight loss. That takes a healthy diet with fewer calories in it than you need to maintain your current weight at your current activity level, whatever that activity level may be. You can exercise ‘til the cows come home, but if you still eat more than you need, you’re not going to lose any of that extra fat you’d like to get rid of. This may be news to Mr. Cloud, but not to the rest of us.
Cloud’s article does go one step further by speculating that exercise may actually be one of the reasons people overeat, and that's where he starts getting into trouble. This speculation is based on the results of several recent studies, described in the article, which indicate that exercise may have three common “side effects” that could, in theory, make weight loss more difficult for many people:
Side Effect No. 1: Exercise increases appetite, often leading people to eat more than they would otherwise, offsetting the calorie burning benefits of their exercise, or even leading to a calorie surplus.
Side Effect No. 2: Exercise weakens your “self-control muscle.” If you use up your limited capacity for self-control by forcing yourself to stay on the treadmill for 60 minutes, it’s going to be much harder for you to resist treats and snacks, and stick to your diet plan for the rest of the day.
Side Effect No. 3: Exercise (especially vigorous, challenging exercise) can lead to tiredness, muscle soreness and other problems which actually reduce the amount of normal physical activity the individual engages in during the day, reducing overall calorie expenditure.
There’s not much doubt that these problems can happen, or even that they do happen for lots of people. But are they inevitable or unavoidable? Do they inevitably have to interfere with your weight loss efforts as much as this article seems to suggest? I suppose they could—IF you were a slave to your appetites, and incapable of figuring out how to feed yourself what you actually need.
But is that what you are? Not according to the tons of scientific evidence and personal testimony from successful weight losers that Mr. Cloud left out of his article.
The real question here, in the end, is whether any of this scientific evidence means you should change your approach to exercise in order to meet your weight loss goals. In this blog and in Thursday’s blog, you’ll find some info you’ll want to know in order to figure this out for yourself.
The first Day’s Night had come—
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And grateful that a thing
So terrible—had been endured—
I told my Soul to sing—
She said her Strings were snapt—
Her Bow—to Atoms blown—
And so to mend her—gave me work
Until another Morn--
--Emily Dickinson, 410
I’m done with just trying to endure my depression and get back to "normal." I'm setting my sights a little higher this time.
Yeah, I know. Trying to make something out of being depressed is about as easy as trying to tie your shoes with one hand tied behind your back. At least when you start with nothing, anything you do will be something. When you start with a big batch of negatives like the hopelessness, helplessness, fatigue, and mental fog that is depression, there’s really no reason to believe that whatever you can do will even get you out of the hole, much less get you moving along in a good direction. It's much easier to see those depressed thoughts and feelings as enemies to be defeated, rather than tools to use.
But maybe it only seems this way because we've forgotten our basic math. When you multiply two negatives together, you get a positive, right? I'm hoping that at least some of the negatives going on for me right now can be combined into something positive--and something beyond merely getting back to "normal."
When you got nothing,
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you got nothing to lose.
You’re invisible now, you
got no secrets to conceal.
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
Like a Rolling Stone
If you’re wondering what a couple of characters in a Bob Dylan song (Like a Rolling Stone) have to do with coping with depression (the subject of this series of blogs), so am I. But it made a lot of sense to me last night when I was listening to the song (a nightly ritual), so I thought I’d see if it still makes sense when I try to write about it.
By the time you read this, I will probably be about halfway through my first week of a two- or three-week course of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) treatment to see if this helps relieve my depression.
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In two previous blogs, I had indicated both that I felt pretty uncomfortable with the idea of electric shock treatment (I was a BIG fan of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and that I was going to try a non-medical approach to dealing with my depression before resorting to additional biological treatments. But here I am in the hospital, getting hooked up to the ECT machine.
What has changed in the past week is the urgency of reducing the effects of this depressive episode on other things. For whatever reason, I’ve been somewhat overwhelmed the last few days with a bunch of new memories and flashbacks related to the childhood abuse I experienced for the first 13 years of my life. I don’t know if the depression is reducing my capacity to keep those memories away, or whether the memories have been mucking around in my subconscious for a while and generating the depression. Maybe both. Or neither. All I really do know is what’s happening right now, which is that I can’t handle all of this at once and still function in my daily life—something has to give. I haven’t been able to sleep for 3 days, and my anxiety level is a steady 14 on a scale of 1-10.
Trying to let the past be the past before it’s too late.
Given that I’m 60 now, and that I’ve been dealing with this old childhood baggage in one way or another for my whole life, I figure I’m not going to have many more chances of getting to the bottom of it. So, my desire is to actively and directly deal with this stuff right now while it’s coming up on its own, instead of trying to put the lid back on again. That means I need to get myself to the point that I’m strong enough to do that—and that means getting through the worst of this depression as quickly and easily as possible. They tell me that ECT is the best treatment when a quick response is the goal, so I’ve decided to give it a try. And, honestly, I could do with a week in the hospital right now, with nothing much to do except cope with getting my brain zapped a few times.
Some Background Info
I used to believe that one’s psyche never gives you more than you’re ready to handle at that time, and therefore, that the appearance of new memories and feelings from the past meant that I was ready to handle whatever it was that wanted to make itself known.
Last week, I said that, since it seems to be occupying just about all of my attention anyway, I would try to blog about my efforts to come to terms with the depression and anxiety that seem to be dominating my life right now. Here’s installment No. 1 in this series of blogs, in which Mr. Mopey attempts to explain his admittedly strange approach to this project.
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“So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.”
--T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
Many of you have probably noticed that I haven’t been blogging recently. As this situation is likely to continue for awhile yet, I thought it would be good to at least let you know what’s going on.
Basically, I haven’t been doing very well physically or mentally for the past couple months, to the extent that my ability to concentrate on reading and writing for this blog has been very compromised. The good news is these problems have nothing to do with my recent heart surgery
and aren’t life-threatening or anything like that. In a nutshell, I’m having problems with pretty severe depression and a return of old post-traumatic stress symptoms. I guess they may have been triggered by the surgery, but their real roots go back a long ways before that. Physically, everything is fine (except for some annoying nerve impingement problems caused by bad spinal arthritis that I’ve also had for years, but which is now producing symptoms).
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We all know that listening to the right music can help us get the most out of our workouts. Not only can the prospect of listening to your favorite music while working out help you get off your butt and actually do it, music with a good tempo can help you keep up the intensity of your workout and have a little fun in the process.
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But what about eating problems? Can listening to music help you avoid eating because you’re tired, bored, lonely, or frustrated?
Not long ago, one of Coach Nicole’s blogs generated a pretty interesting discussion about how playing Wii Fit games compared to “real” exercise.
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Can lurching across your living room carpet, remote in hand, to return a vicious topspin forehand from your TV set ever compare to a real game of tennis, with racquet, ball, and real life opponent?
That’s a question we may have to leave to the philosophers and sports purists among us to decide.
In the meantime, though, it’s becoming pretty clear to doctors everywhere that Wii Fit sports can generate just as many sports injuries as the real thing, and probably even more. In fact, according to this article, “Wii Warriors” have been turning up in doctor’s offices lately in even greater numbers than the Weekend Warriors of earlier generations, and doctors are beginning to develop a special vocabulary to describe their problems. It’s not just “tendinitis” these days—it’s “Nintendinitis.”
Is this just because more people are using Wii Fit for exercise, or is there something about these “virtual” sports that makes them even more likely to cause injury?
Will power. It’s one of those ideas we all talk about pretty often—and not usually when things are going well. You don’t hear too many people talking about how they really gave their will power a good workout today, or how it’s responding so well to their efforts to strengthen it.
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Nope—will power is that mysterious, ill-defined factor that always seems to be missing whenever we need it most: “I just don’t seem to have any will power at all when it comes to______” (you fill in the blank). And then everyone nods their heads sympathetically, and jumps in with their own latest will power horror story.
But if you asked 10 different people to define what “will power” actually is, you’d probably get quite a few different ideas.
In practical terms, most of us would probably agree that what we mean by “will power” is the capacity to stick to our own good intentions, goals, and responsibilities even when we’re faced with temptations to do something else instead. But what actually gives us that capacity? Is will power the same thing as motivation, or self-discipline, or focus, or determination? Does it come from inside or outside? Can you have very strong will power in some areas of your life (like getting yourself out of bed on time almost every day), but practically none in others (like resisting certain foods or staying consistent with exercise)?
And maybe most importantly, is will power something you can learn and develop over time, or is it just something you either have or don’t have courtesy of your genes?
So far, at least, scientists who study will power haven’t done much better than the rest of us at coming up with a definition. They also haven’t located a specific area of the brain that’s responsible for resisting temptations, or any genes that make it easier or harder to resist temptation and stick to your goals.
But they do know there’s quite a bit more we can do to resist our impulses and stick to our good intentions, beyond telling ourselves to “Just Do It.” According to the research, there are three reliable and proven ways you can boost your own will power.
Expectations are powerful things. They can turn relatively easy challenges into incomprehensible failures or transform the most difficult situations into interesting and rewarding opportunities. What you get out of your own efforts depends almost entirely on what you expect to achieve in any given situation.
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The foundation for getting the most out of yourself and your own efforts in any situation is continually choosing and adjusting your expectations so that your strategies and actions match up well with what you can realistically achieve in that situation. Otherwise, you'll end up spinning your wheels trying to achieve the impossible, or settling for a lot less than you could accomplish, or never bothering to find out what really matters to you.
My recent experience with some medical problems and a pretty long hospital stay might provide a good, concrete example of this principle in action. If not, this blog will at least give you the opportunity to introduce yourself to my Inner Pig, who will likely be appearing here in future blogs.
Next week, it will be five years since my weight first dropped below 230 pounds, which is where it hovers most of the time now, give or take 5 pounds. That’s more than 140 pounds below my highest weight ever (I’m not actually sure what that highest weight was, since the scale only went up to 370).
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Today’s blog was originally going to be a nice little travelblog about the hiking and camping vacation I had planned for early April, in honor of my official eligibility for membership in that somewhat exclusive club of people who have lost over 100 pounds and kept it off for 5 years.
Unfortunately, though, I’m not going to be taking my camping vacation next week. Instead, I’ll be spending this week in the hospital, getting a bad heart valve replaced. I’d love to report that all my training in psychology and philosophy, and my experience as a life coach are enabling me to cope with this turn of events without much trouble, but that just wouldn’t be the whole story.
Here's a concept that could make losing weight a lot easier: comfort undereating.
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We all know how easy and tempting it is to reach for something to eat--especially something that's sweet, rich, or salty--in times of stress. "Comfort" eating and "emotional" eating are two of the biggest problems for most people who struggle with their weight.
But one of the odd things about comfort eating has always been that it rarely actually makes us feel good for more than a couple of minutes. After that, we quickly end up feeling guilty or upset--especially if we're trying to eat healthy or lose weight. But still we do it, even though we know how bad we're going to feel as soon as we're done. That immediate reward we get from it really conditions us to reach for the food, and before you know it, you've got an automatic habit on your hands that's very hard to break.
Wouldn't it be nice if NOT reaching for something to eat in times of stress produced that same kind of feel-good reward? It sure would make it easier to break the habit of comfort/emotional eating.
Well, guess what? According to some recent research, those good feelings may be just what you can experience if you can manage to get past that first impulse to eat something when you need a little comfort.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could buy a machine for a few hundred dollars, plant it in front of your TV set, and stand on it for a couple hours per day while it did all the work necessary to burn calories, build muscle, and lose weight?
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If you like to browse the web for new weight loss and fitness products, you’ve probably seen advertisements for Vibration Training machines, along with claims that these machines can work wonders for your weight loss. You may even have seen one of these machines in your gym.
Vibration Training (also called "acceleration training") is definitely a “big thing” on the fitness scene these days. But does it work, or is it just another gimmick?
At this point the verdict is still out on what Vibration Training can actually accomplish. But there are some things we do know:
• It’s not just a money-making gimmick. Vibration training does have serious scientific support, and can be very useful for some purposes when done properly and with high quality equipment.
• Many of the machines on the market now, especially the cheap ones, ARE just gimmicks. The claims manufacturers make, especially about their weight loss advantages, are false, and following their recommendations can actually be dangerous to your health. Many of the cheap machines can’t deliver even on the legitimate benefits of vibration training.
• You definitely should not buy a cheap machine, plant it in front of your TV, and plan to spend hours on it to speed up your weight loss. That could cause serious health problems, and won’t do anything at all for your weight loss.
Here’s some information you can use to separate the fraudulent claims from the ones worth investigating, and decide whether Vibration Training might be something that could be right for you.
According to many experts, one of the things that separates “normal” from “abnormal” eating is that normal eating is based on listening to your own body. You eat when your appetite lets you know you’re hungry, and you stop when you begin to feel full; your food choices are guided mainly by your own preferences. You care about good nutrition, obviously, and you put in the effort it takes to know what your body needs, and where you can get those things. But you also trust your body to know what it needs and to let you know when things are out of balance. There’s no need to get all wrapped up in a bunch of rules about which foods are good and which aren’t.
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Sounds pretty good, right? Who wouldn’t prefer this simple, pain-free approach over chronic worrying about calorie balances, nutrient ratios, and finding just the right approach for your individual metabolism, so you can get and keep your weight where you want it to be?
But how realistic is this? Does it really make sense to think your natural appetite and food preferences can guide you to healthy eating when there is so much good tasting, calorie-dense junk food around?
And what if you need or want to lose a fair amount of weight? Isn’t it your appetite and your preferences that, at least partially, got you into this situation in the first place? Can you really rely on them to get you out of it now, or do you actually need some rules to follow in order to get your diet and your exercise in order?
I don’t know about you, but when I was first setting out to lose weight, the idea that I should listen to my body and do what it tells me made about as much sense to me as putting the fox in charge of the hen house. I felt like my body was the problem, not the solution. If I had ever had a natural “appetite regulation” system, it must have broken down a long time ago.
I’ve since learned that I was wrong about that—it wasn’t broken. The real problem was something else.
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