A Reader’s Eye-Opening Fitness Experience

Dear Ms. Fitness,

As an avid reader of your column and website, I thought it would be good to share a recent experience with you. I know that you do not answer mail personally, but this may serve as a relevant topic for future articles.

I'm 35 years old and I weigh about 142 pounds and, until recently, considered myself in relatively good shape. I work as a computer programmer. My busiest hours are spent in front of a computer monitor for 6 to 10 hours a day. I eat sporadically, usually subsisting on one full meal a day, with snacks, fast food and sweets making up the rest of my intake.

Last night my girlfriend suggested we go run laps. It was my first time on a real track, but I was not intimidated. After all, to go on a climb some years ago, I had to do the equivalent of ten laps, and completed it without a hitch. This was different. I did one tiring lap, then limped in on my return. I was in such bad shape that I was heaving and close to having full body cramps. Me? Heaving? No! I got out off the track before I turned my pain and humiliation into a trip to the hospital.

I'll admit that I've noticed my former physique deteriorate, but I guess I conditioned myself that the love- handles and the A-cup-man-boobs weren't all that bad. I've gained 15 pounds in the last five years (prior to that I had maintained my weight of 127 pounds for about ten years.) I'm not obese, I kept thinking. And I kept in mind the fact that weight gain -- or loss for that matter-- had never been a serious issue in the past (I had 9% body fat at one point!) If I was getting fat, I'd visit the gym for a month, do my push-ups and sit-ups at home and voila! I’d be back to the (short) Greek god of my youth. That was four or five years ago, when I would go scuba diving, rock climbing and hiking and all the stuff young testosterone- driven men do. I knew I was getting out of shape, but I didn't know how bad things had become until last night.

I realize now that, though my girlfriend does not exercise regularly, her lifestyle is very active. She is constantly on the move meeting clients, overseeing projects or running her office. And though I do not agree with her all-protein, no rice diets, she has disciplined herself to eat less and to eat more greens and fish. Another thing I did not take into consideration is that she has minimized her drinking and lost 20 pounds since we first met.

Bottom line is, and you've constantly mentioned this, thin does not equal healthy. In mocking my girlfriend's obsession with being slim instead of fit, I actually did the opposite. I equated my relatively average physique with being healthy.

The only good thing about the experience is that my girlfriend and I share a strong competitive nature. I have vowed to be more fit than she is, and last night's episode has given her undeniable bragging rights that she aims to keep. In the end, we'll both win.

Your loyal reader

This reader’s story is a cautionary tale for young adults who are making the transition from their twenties into their thirties. It shows in graphic detail (no pun intended) the steady physical decline of a young man who once enjoyed a high level of fitness. It is a common story and it illustrates how slim, fit, and active college students can slowly turn into overweight, unfit, and sedentary thirty-something’s.

The reason the reader gained fifteen pounds in five years without really being aware of it is because the weight crept up on him slowly. It was basically a result of muscle loss due to a less physically active lifestyle that resulted in a slower metabolism. I am not putting too much blame on his eating habits because I am assuming that he always ate like that even in college. People don’t normally change their eating habits unless something makes them. That something could be weight gain, a health crisis, or an increased awareness about healthy eating.

Scientists have calculated that a sedentary person will lose about half a pound of muscle every year after the age of 25. Muscle is a highly metabolic tissue (meaning it is calorie-hungry) and every pound of it requires 30 to 50 calories daily for maintenance. The loss of half a pound of muscle can make you gain 1 ˝ to 2 ˝ pounds a year (15 to 25 calories multiplied by 365 days in a year; one pound of fat equals 3,500 calories) even if you maintain the same activity level and eating habits.

It is no surprise that ten years after college, many people find themselves overweight and unfit. The reality of life is that the majority of people in urban areas earn their living by doing office work. Many people tell me that the start of their weight problems began the day they got tied down to a desk.

While I agree with him that his girlfriend’s all-protein, no rice diet is not exactly the ideal diet, his eating style is much worse. She is eating more vegetables and fish and cutting back on her drinking. He is stuffing himself with “snacks, fast food, and sweets”. Even if he never gained weight on that kind of an eating plan, he would still be doing his health considerable damage because his foods of choice are high in processed sugar, flour, salt, and fat. Plus his backside is glued to a seat for most of his waking hours. Scientists have discovered that thin people who don’t exercise are three times more likely to die young than an overweight person who exercises regularly. If he doesn’t change, his current lifestyle will probably catch up with him in his forties and beyond in the form of a heart attack or diabetes (if he has the genetic tendency). No doubt about it, you reap in your older years what you sow in your youth.

Luckily, this young man has had an eye-opening experience that will hopefully change his future. If he takes this incident to heart and buckles down to eating healthy food (he can follow his girlfriend’s lead with eating more fish and vegetables but he doesn’t need to forego rice, beans, whole wheat bread and other no-no’s of a typical high-protein diet) and exercising regularly, his pain and humiliation on the running track will have been worth it.

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