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Beyond the Scale: Getting Healthier in the New Year

Interview by Dolores Radding

It’s that time of year when a lot of people are launching resolutions to get fit and lose some weight. But if you’re focused on losing a certain number of pounds in the New Year, Todd Weitzenberg, MD, says you may be headed for disappointment. Dr. Weitzenberg, of Kaiser Permanente Northern California, is a life-long athlete. He is  chief of Sports Medicine at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa. He’s also the featured guest for this month’s Kaiser Permanente Health Talks Online webinar on exercise and weight loss, slated for Wednesday, Jan. 9, at 12:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, with registration (see below).

What’s your advice to people looking to get fitter in the New Year?

I try to discourage people from focusing too much on weight, because that’s a recipe for failure. Let’s say you want to lose 40 pounds. The New Year comes around and you’re very motivated. Regardless of what kind of diet you go on, or what type of exercise you do, you’re likely to lose a little bit of weight quickly, which is mostly just water weight.

But over time your body does a composition shift, where you begin to lose fat and gain muscle. And muscle weighs more than fat. So even though your body is doing what it should do, you hit a weight-loss plateau, and you get discouraged, and maybe quit.

What’s a healthier focus?

You need to focus on long-term lifestyle changes, instead of any kind of a quick fix. You need to say, ‘I’m in this for life.’ Losing 40 pounds and keeping it off is hard, and it will probably take you a year or longer to do it in a healthy way.

You should exercise at least 30 minutes most days—a minimum of 5 days a week. Add to that a good diet, not the South Beach, or the Atkins, or whatever new-fangled diet is popular now. Instead, make healthy low-fat food choices and manage the size of your portions. Try to get at least five servings of fruits and vegetables in each day.

If you’re overweight and you start eating right, and exercising 30 minutes a day, over time you’ll lose the weight. You’ll also have a lower risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. You’ll feel better, you’ll be less likely to be depressed, you’ll stay smarter because exercise improves your cognitive function, and you’ll live longer.

How can busy people fit in regular exercise?

The key is to try to integrate exercise into your daily routine.  You may not have the two hours it takes to go to the gym, but if you walk 15 minutes in the morning, go for a half-hour walk at lunch, and another 15-minute walk after dinner, you’ve done 60 minutes of exercise. Or try putting in 10, 10, and 10. The point is, instead of sitting, surfing the Internet, or Facebooking—get out and go for a walk. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or, my favorite, park in the very furthest parking space wherever you go. 

Do you have advice for staying motivated throughout the year?

Set goals, and as I said earlier, I don’t think weight loss should be the goal. I prefer what I call an event horizon, or something you are looking forward to. For example: Being able to walk around your block 10 times, doing the AIDS Walk, hiking to the top of half dome in Yosemite, or completing a 10k run with friends.  Commit to something in the future, but don’t wait to get started. Go home tonight and take a walk after dinner.

Think of your body like a bank account or a 401(k).  Every effort you put in now is going to pay off in a longer, happier, and healthier life.

Sign up for Dr. Weitzenberg’s upcoming Health Talks Online webinar. It’s open to the public at no charge.

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