- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 31, 2000

It comes every year at this time: the resolution to eat no more sugar, carbohydrates or fat; the vow to exercise four, five, even seven times a week.

By spring, though, the treadmill is often in storage and the french fries have made a return to the plate.

This is a typical New Year's scenario because most resolution-makers think too big, says Jackie Berning, a professor of nutrition at the University of Colorado and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Thinking small is key when it comes to diet and fitness," Ms. Berning says. "Baby steps can mean big results over time. A 10-minute walk, for instance, can burn 100 calories. Over a year's time, that can result in 10 pounds [lost]."

By incorporating small changes into daily life, a person can improve physical fitness and eating habits for long-term results, says Miriam Nelson, professor of nutrition and physiology at Tufts University and author of the book "Strong Women Stay Slim."

The effects of taking a 10-minute walk here or pushing the breadbasket away there might not be as dramatic as the results of a strict diet. But because those actions involve fewer constraints, you are more likely to stick to them, she says.

"It all starts in your head," Ms. Nelson says. "It's about coming up with a criteria you can live with."

Fitting it in

The U.S. surgeon general recommends that Americans get 30 minutes or more of moderately intense physical activity on most days of the week. About 15 percent of American adults meet those standards, estimates Surgeon General David Satcher.

Busy schedules, inclement weather and a plain old dislike of exercise all contribute to the surgeon general's estimate that more than one-third of adults in this country are overweight.

To find a way to increase physical activity despite those barriers, researchers at the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas last year studied 235 men and women in an experiment called Project Active. In the beginning, all the participants, ages 35 to 60, were sedentary and moderately overweight.

The participants were assigned randomly to one of two groups a lifestyle group, in which the 122 participants learned behavioral skills to help them gradually fit more physical activity into their daily routines, and a structured group, in which 115 members used a fitness center for such traditional forms of exercise as aerobic dance, swimming and walking.

Both groups learned behavioral skills to help them be more physically active, says Dr. Andrea Dunn, the lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January 1999.

Members of the lifestyle group also learned how to tailor changes to their individual daily routines. They kept track of how many minutes of moderate activity they did in a day and how much sitting they did in a day. Using a step counter, they kept track of how many steps they took in a day, working in more by walking around in an airport instead of sitting while waiting for a plane or by strolling the field as they watched their children play soccer.

After six months, members of the structured group had increased their cardio-respiratory fitness more than those in the lifestyle group. After two years, however, both groups had significantly increased their physical activity, improved their cardio-respiratory fitness and lowered their blood pressure. Most participants in both groups maintained their improvement, showing that fitness need not rely on high-intensity workouts or a fitness center, Dr. Dunn says.

Ms. Nelson points out that the government's recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day do not have to be done all at once. Breaking activity into three 10-minute sessions can be just as effective, she says.

"The Cooper Institute study shows that you can get fit even if you don't have time for a formal exercise program," Ms. Nelson says. "That is good news for people who can't always find the time to exercise."

Ms. Nelson says walking 15 minutes at lunch time or taking the stairs in an office building once or twice a day could go a long way toward helping someone get in shape.

"When you do errands, park farther away rather than as close as you can," she recommends. "If you are stuck at home, with small children, for instance, you can jump rope or take the children for a stroll. When my children were small, I would do chin-ups on a jungle gym while they played at the park. It is amazing how you can fit in a whole workout in 45 minutes while children are playing."

Though many novice exercisers claim they need formal exercise such as attending an aerobics class or health club to stay motivated, a 1998 University of Florida study showed that women who embarked on a less formal, home-based program did a better job of maintaining weight loss.

University of Florida researchers followed 49 moderately overweight women between the ages of 40 and 60 who did not exercise regularly. Half the women were chosen for group exercise; the other half were assigned to individual home-based workouts.

Exercise for both groups consisted of five 30-minute walks per week. The group exercisers walked together three times per week for the first 26 weeks, then twice weekly for the remainder of the 15-month study.

In the first six months, results for both groups were similar, with each group having lost an average of about 20 pounds per person. After that, however, many group exercisers dropped out. The group members who continued averaged fewer walking minutes.

By the end of the study, the home exercisers had maintained an average loss of 25 pounds. The group exercisers had averaged 15 pounds.

The home-based exercisers also monitored their diet at a higher rate than their counterparts, says Michael Perri, the study's lead researcher.

"Thirty-pounds-in-thirty-days programs are doomed to fail," he says, "but if people approach the problem with realistic expectations, even those who have been sedentary can adopt healthy exercise habits and maintain a modest weight loss."

Watch what you eat

Small dietary changes can play a big role in improved health, too, Ms. Berning says.

"It can be so simple," she says. "Just leave two or three bites on your plate. You may be able to lose 10 pounds just by doing that over the course of the year."

To make realistic changes to your eating habits, start by taking a look at the big picture, says Dr. Denise Bruner, president of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. Bariatrics is a specialty devoted to weight loss.

"If you are going to make a change, ask yourself, 'Is this something I can sustain?' " says Dr. Bruner, who practices in Arlington.

Dr. Bruner suggests keeping a food diary.

"This is the best way to be honest with yourself about what you are eating," she says. "If you are eating a lot of sugar, reduce that. If you are eating a lot of processed foods, go to natural foods. It will be more expensive and time-consuming, but you will take in fewer chemicals, and that is better for you in the long run."

One easy change is to look at portion size, Dr. Bruner says. Most portions, especially in restaurants, contain much more food than people need on their plates, she says. Cutting portion sizes by one-fourth is a reasonable recommendation that will help cut calories, she says.

Other advice from Dr. Bruner:

• If you are drinking a lot of fruit juice, replace some of it with whole fruit. The whole fruit contains less sugar and more fiber.

• Rethink late-night snacks. If you are headed for bed, those calories will stick with you. If you must have one, find a lower-calorie replacement.

"Instead of a bowl of ice cream, have a cup of sugar-free hot chocolate," Dr. Bruner says.

• Cut down on bread. A roll or a piece of bread with butter is about 250 calories, or enough for a small meal in itself.

Ms. Berning's best advice is to eat breakfast.

"There is evidence that people who skip breakfast end up making up the calories throughout the day," she says. "If you eat a nutritious breakfast, such as whole-grain cereal and/or fruit, you will increase your metabolic rate. You will get a jump-start on burning calories just by eating a regular meal."

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