Quite a buzz was generated this spring by a Harvard study showing that losing weight via exercise is more difficult than previously thought.
One of the pitfalls was an insufficient amount of exercise. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the government-recommended seven hours of moderate exercise per week didn't trigger a drop in weight. Instead, the study found that those who were able to lose weight exercised more than seven hours a week at a moderate pace (or half that time at a vigorous pace).
Exercise does not invariably cause weight loss. Variation is key. If you don't challenge yourself, your body will stop adapting because it no longer perceives the exercise as overload, and you won't see the progress you want.
An increase your caloric intake that outpaces your exercise can also derail weight loss. Many people cut themselves too much slack with food or drink once they start to exercise. This phenomenon is fondly referred to as the "entitlement meal," and it consists of everything you want, because you deserve it.
Marlia Braun, a nutritional biologist and registered dietitian at the University of California at Davis Sports Medicine Program, finds that many fitness-seekers benefit from eating the right things before and during their workout. "It helps you avoid eating the wrong things afterward," she says.
"To prepare for the demands of a hard workout, two to four hours beforehand have a meal or snack with a good source of carbohydrate," says Braun. "And consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate every hour while you work out."
Braun also recommends staving off fatigue by staying well hydrated. "Drink 16 fluid ounces one to two hours before and 5 to 11 fluid ounces for every 20 minutes of exercise," says Braun. "And start drinking and eating early. Avoid having to respond to hunger and thirst. Keep ahead of them."
She also recommends that athletes who want to lose weight avoid overeating in the evening. "You want to fuel your day, not your sleep," says Braun. Evening hunger may indicate you are not eating enough during the day to fuel your increase in physical activity. "To avoid a large evening meal or evening bingeing, try adding a healthy snack or increasing your portions during the day," she says.
Be on the lookout for high-calorie foods disguised as healthy options tailored to fitness-seekers: salads with high-fat, high-sugar dressing (or cheese, croutons, nuts, or cranberries laden with sugar); yogurt (sweetened with more sugar than ice cream); or "energy" bars drizzled with chocolate, frosting or caramel. Even bona fide sports drinks can sabotage your efforts to lower your caloric intake. Sports drinks are designed to provide carbs with your water and often contain upwards of 300 calories in 12 fluid ounces, compared with 195 calories in an average 16-ounce soft drink.
Keep in mind that a premenopausal woman or a man in his early 50s can gain 15 to 20 pounds quite suddenly, in about a year, even with exercise and without a change in diet. To counteract this, Braun suggests eliminating empty calories such as cocktails and wine. A glass of wine contains about 100 calories, a beer or vodka tonic 150, a margarita from 185 to 1,000, and creamy specialty drinks, particularly those containing coconut milk, about 350. "Consuming alcohol is also dehydrating, which can impact the quality of your workouts," Braun says.
To safely jump-start weight loss without compromising the quality of your food intake, try Max's Jumpstart Weight-Loss Diet, a healthy and effective diet developed especially for people who are working out, by exercise physiology physician Max Testa, M.D.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. Visit www.fasterbetterstronger.com.)