Energy Zen—The Top Ten

Our unfashionable guide to a body-weight solution that actually works

Jan 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

1. Don't Restrict
Using willpower to deny yourself food, what the nutritionists call "restricting," will only lead you to pile on more pounds. Judging by how long some wait to eat, obese people have extraordinary willpower, while some of the country's more whippetlike folk are spineless when it comes to temptation. What gives? When you restrict yourself, your body goes for too long without an energy source, and it responds by temporarily slowing your metabolism. When you finally do eat, your body responds viscerally, hoarding calories and urging you to consume more calories than your body can burn. What's more, exercising on top of restrictions will result in an even more sluggish metabolism—anorexics who exercise actually lose weight more slowly than those who avoid working out. Don't mess around with this powerful internal energy shut-off mechanism: Steer clear of crash diets.

2.Rev Up Your Engine
We're sorry to report that metabolism naturally slows down as we age; that's why weight gain creeps up on us beginning with college graduation. "You are losing muscle every year past 20, and this is causing your ability to burn energy to decline," says Jim Karas, author of The Business Plan for the Body and proprietor of Solo Sessions, a weight-loss and exercise program in Chicago. Since muscle burns up to 25 times more energy than fat does, its presence is essential to keeping your metabolism humming. But not only does your body naturally lose muscle as you age, every time you lose weight through food restriction, it comes out of muscle. When you put the weight back on, it goes on as fat. The result is a continual decline in metabolic efficiency. You're going to need to raise your metabolism each year just to stay even. Like planning for retirement, now is the time to habitualize exercise.

3. Lift Weights
Your body burns nearly three-quarters of your daily energy while you sit around twiddling your thumbs. Indeed, your body has the potential to burn far more calories in between your daily bike rides than on the rides themselves. The key is to raise your resting metabolic rate (RMR), and the best way to do this is through strength training. (Remember, muscle is the key to burning more energy.) You may loathe the gym, but Karas advocates three 30- to 45-minute sessions of strength training per week: "You get a 7 to 15 percent boost in basal metabolic rate from increased lean muscle tissue," he says. "It's the one area in our metabolism we can control." 4. Be Mindful when You're Hungry
The body's energy-depletion alarm system is a throwback to our hunter-gatherer heritage, when uncertain food supplies necessitated slowing the engine to get through lean times. But now that we live in hamburger-rich environments, that familiar coiling in your stomach is weight management's greatest enemy. Why? By the time you salivate, you're much more interested in a 700-calorie brownie than a more sensible high-fiber food like wheat crackers. Not only that, but you'll consume more because you've diminished your capacity to feel satisfied (see #1: "Don't Restrict") and are more likely to make poor food choices. Once your stomach starts telling you it's empty, be more conscious in your selection and portion sizes. If you simply go with your gut, you'll fall victim to your body's Stone Age agenda.

5. Eat Often
"When it comes to weight, all the nutritional advice, like the food pyramid, may be barking up the wrong tree," says Dan Benardot, associate dean of research for the College of Health and Human Sciences at Georgia State University and one of the first nutritionists to look at how subtle energy fluctuations during the day affect body composition. In a study of gymnasts and endurance runners, Benardot found that the more athletes let their energy levels dip below a certain point—in short, the hungrier they got before eating each meal—the higher their body fat. "Frequent eating is linked with lower body-fat percentage, less stress hormones, and less insulin response," says Benardot. "More food intake does lead to more weight, but not in an equal fashion—it depends on how it is consumed." Don't let your fuel tank fall into the red. Benardot advises eschewing the typical 600-, 800-, 1,000-calorie meal plan for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Divide your meals in half, and eat approximately every three hours. Keep your largest meal under 800 calories.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web