It is a demoralizing and hopeless feeling to try as hard as you can and still fail. Effort does not meet reward. The reasons we experience failure are numerous, yet they all stem from one thing: we did not control ALL of the variables. If you have been having trouble losing weight or keeping it off, it’s not due to a lack of effort, it’s because you are not in complete control of all of your variables.
To be in complete control, you must control EVERYTHING that controls your weight. In the companion post to this one, “Your Body is the Result of Your Lifestyle”, we learned that the body operates as a demand driven system. It responds to the challenges (or lack thereof) placed upon it to get stronger or weaker, fatter or thinner. Now that we know how the system works, how do we control the variables that make up the system?
First, we need to define the variables we are attempting to control. I’m not going to create a list just yet but I will say that there are a finite, quantifiable number of variables that determine your health and wellness. By controlling these variables you control your body. Now you may be saying, “Todd, there are thousands of variables that contribute to my health and wellness and in turn these thousands of variables interact to produce millions of possible outcomes...............how am I possibly going to control them all.” My response to this is, “by developing a health & wellness framework.”
We rely on frameworks every day to make our lives easier. Frameworks are mental shortcuts that we take to figure things out quickly. For example: if a food (i.e. Chili’s Awesome Blossom) has >1000 calories in it, do we really need to know how much total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, carbohydrate, protein, or for that matter vitamins or minerals are in that food? NO. Based on our mental framework (I shouldn’t eat foods with too many calories) I know that that food cannot possibly be good for me because it has greater than 1000 calories. Case closed, no further discussion required. We don’t have to waste our time and mental energy worrying about all of the aspects on the nutrition label.
It has been said that our brain is a muscle and that over the course of the day it fatigues (1), just as muscles do at the end of a long race. Our willpower and our mental energy is a finite resource. When it’s gone, it’s gone. If we only have so much mental energy to go around each day, why waste it on trying to figure out the appropriate amount of total fat, saturated fat, and so on when all we really need to look at is the total number of calories?
I am going to make it easy for you. Instead of trying to control the thousands of variables and millions of interactions, I will ask you to keep track of just 3 variables: 1) programmed exercise, 2) non-programmed exercise, and 3) nutrition.
I recently released a video profiling the services we provide at Energy Balance Nutrition Consulting (EBNC) that gives a brief overview of these three components. If you’re not up for reading on, you can watch the video shown below.
1) Programmed Exercise: the activity you do purposefully to exercise. Think about it as exercises you perform at the gym. It also includes activities performed outside such as biking, running, or swimming. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends performing 30-60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity programmed exercise on all or most days of the week. The National Weight Control Registry, a database of individuals who have lost more than 30 pounds and kept it off for more than a year, contends that the majority of individuals successful at maintaining weight loss exercise a minimum of 60 minutes/day.
2) Non-programmed Exercise: includes activities of daily living such as household chores or taking the stairs. Most health professionals recommend taking a minimum of 7000 steps/day and striving for greater than 10,000 steps/day (2). As a frame of reference, the average American takes ~5,000 steps/day (3). I recommend purchasing a Fitbit Zip to track your non-programmed physical activity.
The bottom line is when it comes to physical movement you need to balance out your programmed and non-programmed exercise. You cannot exercise 30-60 minutes/day and sit and do nothing the rest of the day. I also would not recommend neglecting programmed exercise and only focusing on non-programmed exercise. You should do a combination of both for optimal health and depending on what your goals are.
Now it must be pointed out that, although this is anecdotal on my part, I have personally witnessed numerous individuals who perform no traditional, gym-type programmed exercise but are committed to daily walking and live well into their 80’s and 90’s. If your goal is to live a healthy life and don’t care about body composition, then you can probably get away with just a robust walking program. On the other hand, if you are trying to lose weight or change your body composition, programmed exercise cannot be neglected. There is not a one size fits all recommendation for the amount of programmed and non-programmed exercise you perform. It depends on what your goals are and where you want to be on the continuum between couch potato and marathoner. As always, remember your Nutrition Exercise Return on Investment (NEROI)!
3) Nutrition: nutrition is the most controversial of the three topics. Less than 10% of the United States adult population is able to comply with the nutrition standards set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (4). My suggestion is to eat the majority of your meals in the home (or packed from the home), save eating out as a treat, manage your recipes and meal planning with the Paprika recipe application, and answer the questions provided in the “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of Grocery Shopping”. The grocery store is paramount to your healthy eating success. Again, I am not going to provide specifics when it comes to nutrition because nutrition is another case of “it depends”. Different nutrition strategies work for different people. Depending on how dedicated you are to your exercise routine and how much volume of programmed and non-programmed exercise you perform will determine how much you can eat.
By controlling these three things you have created the framework by which you can control the thousands of variables and millions of interactions that contribute to weight gain or weight loss. Don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be. Follow the KISS principle:
There are numerous “fine tuning” adjustments that can be made within each category, but I wanted to show you the forest first. You can worry about the trees later. If you don’t get the basics of the forest, you’ll just be lost in the trees.
You are your very own experiment. Track these three points and see where it gets you on the exercise and nutrition continuums. Don’t ever give up. For every problem there is a solution. Control ALL the variables by first controlling these three points and you will TAKE BACK CONTROL of your health!
Todd M. Weber PhD, MS, RD
Hofmann W, Friese M, Wiers RW. Impulsive versus reflective influences on health behavior: a theoretical framework and empirical review. Health psychology review. Sept 2008;2(2):111-137.
Tudor-Locke C, Craig CL, Brown WJ, et al. How many steps/day are enough? For adults. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity. 2011;8:79.
Bassett DR, Jr., Wyatt HR, Thompson H, Peters JC, Hill JO. Pedometer-measured physical activity and health behaviors in U.S. adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. Oct 2010;42(10):1819-1825.
- Krebs-Smith SM, Guenther PM, Subar AF, Kirkpatrick SI, Dodd KW. Americans do not meet federal dietary recommendations. The Journal of nutrition. Oct 2010;140(10):1832-1838.