Health Column: Inside out

COURTESY PHOTO Maggie Davis leading a fitness class.

COURTESY PHOTO Maggie Davis leading a fitness class.

Staying fit is not just about exercise — it’s also about what you eat.

Exercise to improve fitness, but eat a healthy diet to control weight. The two need to go hand in hand in order to be at our best. Rather than expecting our fitness program to give us a beach body, we should focus on creating change from the inside out. For instance, new brain cell growth and arteries that are clear of life threatening plaque.

The reality is, we can’t out run our forks or crunch our way to flat abs. When we were younger, we might actually have been able to exercise enough to counteract poor eating habits. Or rather fool ourselves into thinking it’s okay to eat candy and chips because we were active and skinny.

Of course, we now know that a steady diet of junk food is not good at any age, but as we get older our metabolism slows down making good dietary choices even more critical.
One of the challenges of maintaining a healthy weight as we advance in age is loss of muscle mass.

Muscle tissue is metabolically more active, meaning it requires more energy. The more muscle you have the more calories you will burn even when you’re at rest. The best way to counteract this decline for both men and women is through strength training.

Another obstacle that plagues gym goers trying to lose weight is the “halo effect” of exercise. This is the notion that it’s okay to have that extra glass of wine or piece of cake because it can be “worked off” through exercise. We don’t need to lead lives of deprivation, but we need to be honest about our level of exertion versus the number of calories being consumed. We also want to maximize the quality of those calories.

There are hundreds of different opinions about the best diet, but everyone agrees that fruit and vegetables loaded with antioxidants and fiber are necessary for good health and that too much sugar and processed food is detrimental. A good way to approach diet can be summed up in the simple words of author Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It doesn’t have to be complicated — load your plate with nutritious food (as close to it’s natural state as possible) and don’t eat more than you need to support your energy requirements.

Unfortunately, much of the fitness culture is preying upon people’s need for instant and easy results, leaving the population frustrated and even more overweight and out of shape. These quick fix programs often promote a superficial and unrealistic expectation of what diet and exercise can achieve. Beware of programs that advertise, “long, lean muscles.” The length of your muscles is determined by genetics and the leanness is determined by diet.

Maybe in the future we will have the technology to post on Instagram and Facebook our latest brain scan after working out. This would provide a more motivating image. It can take months of hard work and restrictive dieting to get into swimsuit shape, but our brains show measurable benefits after just one session of exercise. The same is true of one healthy meal versus a junk food binge.

If health and longevity is the goal, approaching exercise and diet as a way to get stronger from the inside out versus chasing a superficial goal can be more realistic and sustainable for the long haul. Not only will we look and feel younger by eating the right foods and being active, but with consistency we might just be able to rock that swimsuit too.