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Let’s Talk About Your Setpoint

What is a setpoint?

I hear a lot of talk about your “setpoint”, which is the weight you gravitate towards over time. What I just said should tell you it is not one number. People started talking about it when they started to explore yo-yo dieting and people who regain weight after losing it. It also crops up when people have trouble losing weight.

Ok, but what is it?

First, let’s establish what it is not. It is not some mysterious, metabolic force that you have no control over. I cannot stress enough, our bodies are governed by physics. The laws of thermodynamics, meaning energy in = energy out, apply to us. This means you cannot be living on air and not losing weight. I guarantee if I locked you up and starved you, you would lose weight. However, we aren’t starving, and some people are more active than others. This means we tend to follow our preferences. If I eat ice cream every afternoon, followed by a nap, I will weigh more than someone who doesn’t do those things. So your set point is where you end up, following your preferences.

So what can I do about it?

This is the easiest hardest part. Just change your preferences. Or ignore them. This is where diets are made or broken. This is everything about weight loss and the weight loss industry. All that talk about “diets don’t work” comes down to this. You can’t start some kind of diet that ignores your preferences, and expect it to work. You’ll only stick to it for a short while, and when your motivation wanes, you’ll be start eating like you used to, and gain the weight back.

The prescription to change your preferences.

Now this part you’ve hopefully heard before. What counts is how you personalize it.  Stop looking at it like “I want to lose 10 lbs by Christmas”. Instead, look at it like, “what is one choice I can change today, that I can live with?” Make small permanent changes that can add up over time. You didn’t decide to gain weight by a certain date, those small choices just added up. Put that effortless power to work for you. Every meal is a new opportunity to do something right.  Reading diet tips or diets to see what changes you can incorporate is extremely helpful. I can personally recommend Sparkpeople.com or myfitnesspal.com or fooducate.com. Slow weight loss is ideal, because that is what will be permanent.

Exercise

Adding exercise makes it even easier. First, it burns more calories, second it increases your stamina so you can move more the rest of the day, third it increases your lean muscle mass. Have you seen older people who have trouble walking from the car to the house? If that’s you, you are not burning a lot of calories. There are a lot of great BMR calculators out there, so pick on if you want a ball park figure of how many calories you burn just sitting on your butt. Some people say a really rough estimate is to multiply your weight by 10 for your total calorie usage. Calorie counting is more art than science. Unless you are in a lab, or completely obsessed and weighing every mouthful, it is only an estimation. In any case, the more you move, all day long, the more calories you burn. So find exercises you can stick with. I don’t care about the intensity, or how you “feel the burn”, the crux of it is whether you will stick with it. Remember, we are in this for the long-term, which will change your setpoint. It can be walking, playing bocce, hiking, swimming, etc, etc. Now, if you say mowing the lawn is yours, and you only mow once a week, that isn’t enough. It has to be something you do at least three times a week, for half an hour, minimum. Increasing your walking is the easiest and most readily available for most of us.

Add it up for the best results.

So make those small permanent changes  in both your exercise and eating, and you should see permanent weight changes. Of course, that means your health will improve as well. Hopefully, those small changes will lead to other small changes, on and on. That is what causes continued weight loss.

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Boost Your Metabolism

boost your metabolismOk, now that I have your attention.

This is what everyone wants to hear, right? “I want to burn more calories, without changing what I’m doing.” But can we be honest, and talk about what metabolism is, and what we are doing when we are “burning calories” ?

Metabolism is just the sum of all the chemical reactions that happen to make you alive and mobile. Your metabolism consists of your cells dividing, your heart pumping, your lungs breathing, tiny muscular contractions keeping you upright, secretions being produced, etc. Approximately 90-99% of all the calories you burn each day are spent just keeping you alive. All large skeletal movements are added to that, so the more you move, the more calories you use one top of the basic ones.

You are not above the law.

The math is pretty basic. The laws of thermodynamics do apply to living things. However, all measurements are approximate as we are all a bit different. For example, most measurements are based on men having more muscle mass than women. That may or may not be true. Most good calorie trackers currently tie into fitness trackers or allow you to put your activity range in, allowing them to dial in better. Until we get to the point where we can perfectly register every bite you put in your mouth and all your exertions, there will be some discrepancy. Having said all that, I will not believe you if you tell me you are eating 12oo calories a day and not losing weight. (Unless you are a child or child sized.)

Eeek! Starvation mode!

Which brings me to my next point. Actually, to my whole point in writing this. When we talk about “starvation mode”, or raising or lowering our metabolism, what we are actually talking about is increasing or decreasing movement. Remember the last time you were literally starving? Like after having the flu, or when you fasted? You feel like you can’t move. The effort to lift an arm feels like too much. That is all we mean when we talk about lowering your metabolism. If your body doesn’t have enough for the “keeping you alive” part, you certainly won’t have the energy for a 20 minute cardio workout. So you want to eat enough to feel capable of doing exercise. (Willingness is another issue.) Your metabolism isn’t some magic engine that is revving up while you are sitting in front of the computer. It is you deciding to walk to work, run on your lunch, hike after work, or get to the gym. Your metabolism revs up as it is required to, by moving. You can’t make your cells divide faster, or secrete more, the only part of your metabolism you have control over is skeletal movement.  And, if I may speak from personal experience, moving makes you more energetic. No one gets more energized by sitting on the couch. People who say “I’m resting up” don’t ever seem to get rested enough to do anything.

Take home message:

Use a decent calorie tracker, know your limits and move, Move, MOVE! (And don’t fall for hype. If you take something to “boost your metabolism”, then use it to move!)

(But don’t take anything to boost your metabolism, they are generally useless.)

A Walk in the Woods

Myself and a friend, looking at the map.

It’s always good to know where you are going.

Since fitness is my passion, most of my posts are commenting on articles I run across pertaining to fitness. However, I just had the opportunity to backpack for the weekend, and I feel it was worth writing about. I find it ironic that I’m getting into this hobby at the time when “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods” are in vogue. I was told to read both those as I started doing this. I don’t think I’ll ever be a through hiker, the term for those who stay on the trail from start to finish. When I was younger, I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, but now that I know what that entails, I find I’m happy with just doing weekend hikes.

I have experienced many facets of fitness – aerobics, weight lifting, biking, kayaking, swimming and walking. I’ve worked out in the gym and at home. I’ve participated and taught classes, and done fun things that were incidentally fitness producing. I’ve done indoor rock climbing and learned how to climb trees safely. Having done all this, I’ve discovered that fitness is a positive circular cycle. You have to exercise to be fit enough to do active things, and doing active things increases your fitness level. A way to demonstrate this is how you feel the first time you go for a bike ride in the spring, vs if you keep it up all winter on a stationary bike.

a picture of me going down the stairs.

Down is worse than up.

So, I had to train to hike, and hiking was what I did to train. It is excellent for fitness. There are all the benefits of walking, and many of the benefits of weight training, since you are carrying 30 lbs on your back. Unlike walking, most trails are rather challenging, like the one I just went on that had an uncounted number of stairs. The first few times I did it around my neighborhood, I was so sore the next day, especially my calves and feet. I quickly adapted. The heat was an issue, we had one seasoned member bow out after the first day, opting to get a boat home. (We were hiking along a lake.)

We left on a Friday, and did 8 miles (roughly) the first day. We did shorter hikes the next two days, roughly 6 miles Saturday, and five on Sunday. Since I had not trained on consecutive days, I was concerned that there would be some adaptive stress to daily hiking, but there was none. My right knee and foot got sore the second day, after all those stairs, but seemed completely recovered the next.

Hiking and backpacking aren’t for everyone. If you have physical limitations, or just aren’t sure of your

a group picture, including the dog.

Our merry band

footing, it can be daunting. Backpacking means carrying everything you need on your back, which can be physically too much for some. It also means accepting a certain amount of risk, being organized and learning new skills. Of course, it also means eating, sleeping and peeing in the woods, which can be a gross-out for overly fastidious people. Having said this, many state parks have shorter, flatter trails for the less able. My husband hikes on shorter hikes. Also, you are in control of your hike. You can decide how many miles you want to do. You can always turn around and go back. Many trails are loops, of set mileage, which helps determine if they are something you’d like to challenge.

I do think most people would benefit from some sort of hiking. Getting out in nature, getting your vitamin D, socializing (you should never hike alone), and, of course, exercising, are all benefits of it. I like backpacking because of the feeling that I’m tied to all of human history. Most people lived their whole lives in a fashion similar to how we camp. It gives you great respect for our forebearers, and deep gratitude for all our technological advances.

I Keep Saying it, but Maybe Hearing From Someone Else?

Hi everybody! Did you think I fell off  the face of the earth? I know, I did too. Seriously, I moved. I know there are all you 20 somethings out there, moving all the time and still keeping up on your blogs, your kids, and making it all look easy, but I’m not 20 anymore. In fact, this was my first move in almost 20 years! I’ll fill you in on some details at the end- that’s a hint, if you don’t care, don’t finish the article. But in the meantime, I have an article to comment on.

Most of what I write about is prompted by articles on the web, both good and bad. This is a good one, it is a first person testimonial by Jason Nixon. “Battling the Insanity of Fad Diets.” He writes about his weight gain, the silly things he tried to do to lose weight. He tried several popular ways to lose weight. He tried a “nutrition counselor” who did have him keep a log, and gave him supplements. I’m not against either of those things, I think a log is the best way to get honest about what you are eating, and supplements can help, but aren’t necessary. Whatever he did with her was not self sustaining, and apparently did not involve exercise. I put “nutrition counselor” in quotes, as the only true nutrition counselors are registered dietitians, which is a 4 year degree or above. I have run into so many self-styled nutrition experts, that don’t have a degree in anything. I have studied nutrition my entire adult life, but I don’t have a degree in it, and don’t pretend to. It is hard work making meal plans. You have to do a lot of math and a lot of planning. Most advice you get is either based on micronutrients or calories. Those will work, and there are a lot of ways to cut corners, but that isn’t true nutrition counseling from a registered dietician.

The next thing he tried was the HCG diet. I have written about that before, see here. I won’t go into the whole rant, but we eat food for a reason. It is what our bodies are made of. The molecules get broken down by enzymes, shipped all over our body and used as fuel or as building material. Starvation is something people have worked very hard to avoid. All you paleo people out there, there’s a reason we all went to agriculture. Starvation is bad. HCG makes it possible for you to starve yourself. Which brings me to my next rant, not eating will always make you lose weight. I don’t want to hear lower set points, starvation mode, etc. There were no fat concentration camp victims. If I lock you up and don’t feed you, you will lose weight. HOWEVER, this is NOT the correct way to lose weight in a world where you aren’t locked up and have choices. Not to mention what I just said about eating for a reason. It isn’t all about weight loss, it’s about health.

*Whew*. Sorry about that. My mother was anorexic, I get passionate about HEALTHY weight loss. Back to topic. So after yo-yoing around, Jason went to the gym and lost the weight the right way. Before you start whining “but I don’t like to exercise, can’t I just eat less?” Yes, you can. See the last paragraph. There are plenty of skinny desk jockeys. However, if you need to lose weight, you’ve already proven that what you are doing is not working. I always say that it almost impossible to be fat if all you eat is vegetables. Most of us are not going to just eat vegetables. Diet is more important than exercise because you can always out eat your work out. But together, they work magic. The diet takes care of giving you what you need to build that beautiful body, and the exercise builds it.

Beyond the scale, as Jason notes, there is the overall health benefits. Even if you never get your diet to the point where you are a size 8, you can be sooo much healthier. Right now, can you run to the end of your road? Can you lift 45 lbs? Can you walk two miles easily? Are stairs daunting? Those things aren’t simply a function of age. We were visiting the first black schoolhouse in South Carolina, and the woman showing it to us was 73. She walked to a nearby graveyard in hardly more time than it took us to drive it. So don’t blame your age.

my home gym, showing a bowflex, swiss ball and weights

My happy little gym.

All right, here’s my personal update. I went from NY to SC. I now have hills to run, even steeper than before, and warmth and sunshine beyond a few short months. I’m only doing a little private training for the moment, I’d like to associate with a gym shortly, but I had the luxury of not working while I moved, so I took it. We got a house big enough for me to have a really nice home gym, upstairs this time, instead of the basement. I have a big enough yard to garden like mad, which I’m doing. I even planted my greens, although they aren’t doing well. I got a bunch from the neighbor, so I’m enjoying my green oatmeal. I’m really enjoying the weather, even though I miss my friends like crazy. I had a lot of hiking buddies up north, and haven’t made any as of yet. I did join some meet up groups. If you don’t know about meetup.com, it’s a great way to meet people who have like interests.

It’s a New Year

Is losing weight part of your New Year’s Resolution? Was it part of last year’s? Are you trying to turn around years of habit, or possibly an entire lifetime? I’m here to encourage you.

Walk

Anything you do will help. Walk 30 minutes a day. Walk 15 minutes if you can’t make 30. Of course I’d like you to do more, but if you are doing nothing now, start doing something. There are many reasons to join a gym, but you don’t have to. Joining a gym gives you motivation, accountability, access to more equipment and exercises, and community, but if you are reluctant, don’t let that stop you from exercising.

Eat

Don’t snack. I don’t mean don’t eat, I just mean don’t eat snack food. There are very, very few good snack foods. If you buy something for the sole purpose of a snack, you are in all likelyhood sabatoging your diet. Protein bars, granola bars, etc, are LOADED with sugar or artificial sweeteners. The supermarkets are filled with snack items, and most have too much sugar, salt and fat. If you are hungry, eat real food. Need it to be portable and convenient? Carrots, celery, hard boiled eggs, cheese ( in moderation), fruit, sandwiches, Triscuits, and hummus are all easy choices.  A yogurt sunday, with plain lowfat yogurt, banana, walnuts and cranberries is 242 calories, and will keep you full for hours. I usually make two dishes for lunch, the yogurt sunday and a bean and rice dish. I eat one at 11:00, the other later, and I don’t get hungry, and everything I eat is benefiting my body. I will tell you if you like sardines, you are in luck, they are a great snack and one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Just don’t do it at the office, you won’t be popular.

Persist

You don’t go “on” or “off” a diet. You just eat better or worse. Persist in trying to eat better every day. Same with exercise. Try and throw something in every day, everywhere. Throw in an extra trip across the store, run up the stairs for no good reason, or shovel your neighbors walk.

Think

Need motivation? Do you know how many extra pounds you are carrying? Carry them. Find something that weighs that much and try and carry it. Please do this with caution if you are more than 15 lbs overweight, and don’t try it if you are more than 25 lbs overweight, unless you are trained in weight lifting. Just pick up something heavy, and realize you are carrying more than that every day, pounding your knees, making your back ache and causing you distress. Think about how much easier life will be without that extra weight.

Geocaching and the Fitbit-a Perfect Fit.

the fitbit bracelet

cute little thing

My son recently bought me the Fitbit for Mother’s day. I really love it. It works with MyFitnessPal, so I don’t have to learn some new calorie tracking software, and it does work with others, but I don’t use anything else, so I can”t comment on that. What I will tell you is that having a goal always there in front of you makes you more aware of it and eager to go. If it’s 3:00pm, and I see I’m no where close to my goal of 10,000 steps, I’ll be the one volunteering to run errands. If I do log my eating on MyFitnessPal, and I see I’m at or close to my calorie goal, I’ll turn down desert. Just knowing you have to log something, or in the case of the fitbit, it will automatically be logged for you, will change your behavior.

a snapshot of the fitbit screen, showing how many steps and miles

on your phone, you can check how you are doing as the day progresses.

You can track what you are doing on your smart phone, seeing your progress as the day goes on. You can also see it on your computer, which will give you more information.

computer screen snapshot, showing the same information as the phone.

computer screen snapshot, showing the same information as the phone.

I do realize all of this can get a bit obsessive, but if you are having trouble losing weight, or just want to see how things really stack up in your life, this is a great tool.For instance, I always tell people if you want to lose weight, don’t eat out. Well, this confirmed it. Every time I ate out, I went way over my calories for the day, and I have it set for maintainence, so if I was trying to lose weight, it would be hopeless.

Just to warn you though, it is a bit buggy. It can log your sleep, but I found if I don’t hit “log sleep” on my phone, it is wildly inaccurate. It doesn’t always update quickly, and if you don’t have internet, it can’t work with your phone, even though it is bluetooth enabled. Also, I briefly tried their calorie tracking software, and didn’t like it. That could be just a case of familiarity. I’ve used my fitness pal before and like it.

And Geocaching fits in how?

So one of the main measures the Fitbit uses is how many steps you take. Geocaching is treasure hunting using either a gps or your phone to find little objects other people hid. Obviously, you have to walk to find them, and so they fit hand in hand. I spent the weekend Geocaching with a friend of mine who taught me about it, and who is an avid geocacher. I wouldn’t post a blog article about it, except that I tried out the phone software and was extremely impressed. In the past, you had to have a gps, which made it a more exclusive pastime. You had decide ahead of time if you liked it enough to buy a device, and then learn the device at the same time you were learning geocaching, making it the kind of hobby you would only get into if someone mentored you, or if you were really determined. Now with the phone version, every one with a smart phone can do it.  I downloaded the free trial version and took another friend out. We just tried it on some new local caches. She had my gps, and I had the phone. I would say they worked equally as well.

I wanted to show you what the screen shots looked like, but then I realized there was no way to show you without publishing my location blatently! While I’m fond of many of you, that is oversharing on a major scale.

Do Supplements Really Help?

Here is yet another article informing us that taking pills will not solve our problems. Even the highly touted fish oil, the one that to my knowledge no one has ever said anything negative about, appears to be ineffective against preventing heart disease if it is already established, or if you are at really high risk. Here is the money quote, in my opinion:

The results do show that people can’t rely on a pill to make up for a bad diet, she said.

“It is sort of like breaking a fish oil capsule over a hot fudge sundae and expecting the effect of the calories and saturated fat to go away,” she said.

We’ve gone through this in the past, with vitamin c and e, where when people eat diets high in these vitamins, they have less disease and greater health, but the same health benefits don’t apply to taking those vitamins in pill form. You can’t eat a poor diet and expect pills to make up the difference, and as far as we can tell, pills don’t have the same effect as the substance does in food.

Having said all this, I do take some supplements. Some I think do help, although it could be the placebo effect. I also eat a very healthy diet. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a strong genetic predisposition to heart disease, so I am doing an experiment of 1 to see if I can counteract that with diet and exercise. I experiment with supplements on three criteria- Is there any scientific evidence supporting their claims? Is it expensive? Is there any possibility of harm? Most I’ve dropped, as I see no difference. The joint supplements do seem to help, so those I continue. And yes, I do fish oil, along with my healthy diet, as it does no harm and is inexpensive.

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