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Exercise: Just One Piece of the Puzzle

To lose weight, we must do more than burn calories. Guess what that means?

A few years ago I joined the National Weight Control Registry, a research effort focused on people who have lost 30 or more pounds and kept it off for a year or more.

In 2007, a subset of this group was invited to participate in the LITE program — Living Lean in a Toxic Environment. This study, led by Dr. Rena Wing, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School, compares the behavior of normal-weight people with the behavior of weight loss subjects, of which I was one.

As part of the test, I wore an accelerator, a sophisticated recording device that tracked all body movement. For seven days, I wore the equipment every waking hour.

Every other day, I was interviewed by a nutritionist who wanted to know everything I had eaten — each morsel that passed my lips. I was provided detailed instructions, which included pictures, measurements and diagrams of food portions in various sizes, shapes and kinds. These pictures could be compared against actual food to ensure accuracy in reporting.

The results were charted for my review. Guess what I learned?

The study confirmed what I knew but didn't want to admit: Despite an intensive exercise program (daily stretching and weights, regular tennis), if I eat more than 1,600 calories a day, I gain weight. On days when I exercise lightly, I need to limit my intake to 1,300 to 1,400 calories per day. If I stick with this formula, I can maintain my weight between 125 and 130 pounds and my body mass index at 23 — "normal" for my 5' 3" height.

Based on the study, I burn 110 calories an hour while engaged in low-intensity activities such as stretching, light office work or driving a car, and I burn far fewer when I'm sedentary. When I play doubles tennis, my calorie expenditure jumps to 135 an hour — another 25 calories. That means an hour and a half of doubles tennis burns around 200 calories — the equivalent of a couple of cookies. Big deal, right?

Limiting myself to 1,600 calories a day requires careful eating — 400 calories each for breakfast and lunch, 100 for a snack, 500 for dinner, and perhaps 100 before retiring. But 1,600 calories is plenty of food if I stick to fresh fruits, lots of salads and vegetables, lean protein, plus modest amounts of grains and dairy products. It doesn't permit a whole lot of "exceptions" — a glass of wine, slice of pizza or second helping. Such treats must be reserved for special occasions.

Many years ago, I remember my physician, Dr. Royce Cole, telling me I needed to lose weight. I responded with exercise. Because I exercised more, I ate more and ended up gaining weight! When I complained to Dr. Cole, he told me the obvious truth — there weren’t enough hours in the day to lose the 60 pounds I needed to drop through exercise alone. I had to change what and how much I ate.

Exercise can improve my outlook and quality of sleep, strengthen my bones and immune system, build muscle, improve flexibility and give me an excuse to play with my friends. But what it can't do by itself is make the extra pounds disappear.

The only exercise that keeps me from bulking up is putting down my fork and pushing myself away from the table. That's because, no matter what I tell myself or what I'd like to believe, the body has a mind of its own.