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Bucking conventional wisdom leads to better health

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

I recently read a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control that almost 70% of American adults are now overweight. After spending a couple of decades in that category, I have to say that it's more fun now being in the 30%!

This reminded me that I never wrote my traditional year-end "New Year's Resolutions" column. I guess there's no time like the present, now that the year is half over.

My journey to better health began as I turned 50 in early 2010, when I received a diagnosis of high blood pressure during a physical for my first trip to Philmont Scout Ranch. I thought I was in decent shape, but numbers don't lie.

My goal was to beat that hypertension and get off the new drugs I was prescribed. I thought maybe I could do it in the six months before leaving for Philmont, but that optimism turned out to be pretty naive -- it ended up being a four year battle.

Everyone's road to recovery is different. What worked for me is to buck conventional wisdom in a few areas.

Convention wisdom says that if you exercise enough, you can eat whatever you want. I proved otherwise. I started out in 2010 by walking a half hour a day, and slowly built up to an average of 64 minutes per day of vigorous exercise by 2012.

I was in much better shape, but my weight hardly budged.

Conventional wisdom says that it's not about calories; it's about the quality of food you eat. But what I learned is that, at least when it comes to losing weight, counting calories is EVERYTHING!

It wasn't until I started recording my food intake with "My Fitness Pal" that I began to lose serious weight. Counting calories and living within a daily budget leads indirectly to better eating: If I'm hungry in the afternoon, I'll grab an apple and a handful of baby carrots, since those provide much more food volume than a small candy bar for the same calorie cost.

Convention wisdom says not to bother with scales or BMI charts, but "The Hacker's Diet" (weight loss with an engineering approach) convinced me that you absolutely need that daily feedback to measure your progress, providing it's smoothed out with a 20-day rolling average.

Exercise alone does not produce weight loss; you still have to control what you eat. But burning calories does allow you to eat a little more, and being leaner makes exercise more enjoyable, which means you're likely to do it more.

My exercise increased from a daily average of 63 minutes in 2012 to 78 minutes in 2013, then jumped to 104 minutes per day in 2014. Thanks to my 32-mile round trip commute, I racked up 4000 miles of biking last year -- and I thought 2700 in 2013 was good. And this is on top of 900 miles of running. Everything is easier when you're not carrying around an extra 30 pounds.

In my column eighteen months ago I was tickled pink to be at 158 pounds, a weight I hadn't seen since college. I was a little nervous about committing to that weight, with all the stories of yo-yo dieting.

But eventually I tiptoed into buying new clothes. Fortunately, that didn't backfire, as I've been within two pounds of 149 for a year and a half now.

Weight loss, exercise, and increased fiber (in the form of psyllium husk powder) led to an unbelievable drop in cholesterol (199 to 137) and triglycerides (248 to 36). My doctor just about fell out of his chair when he saw those numbers at my annual physical last December.

The fun part is that I eat any kind of food I want! I am not intolerant of gluten or lactose, and I proudly consume GMOs and plenty of carbs, including good ol' refined sugar. In fact, I still enjoy a warm, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie every night, and still eat three fried eggs every morning. (Remember when conventional wisdom said eggs caused high cholesterol?)

I just try to make sure that I consume fewer calories than I burn every day. It all comes down to simple math -- anyone can do it!

Beth sometimes asks me when I can stop my food tracking and daily weigh-ins. Good question! Maybe some day I can coast.

In the mean time, three minutes of bookkeeping a day sure beats paying for blood pressure drugs. Sometimes it pays to ignore conventional wisdom.

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