Food plus fitness equals health

By Marcia Kyle | Aug 14, 2009

What does food have to do with fitness? Watch your toddler or teen eat a nourishing meal and you know they are going to have a better day, whether on the playing field or in the classroom. As parents, we know good nutrition and exercise are necessary for a child's growth and development.

But what about us grownups? Healthful eating and continued interest in physical activity assure adults throughout the lifespan a higher quality of life. We can even decrease our risk for some diseases. When you are fit, you:

Improve your mood, reduce your stress and increase your energy.

Reduce your risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Look and feel your best.

Have the physical strength and endurance to do the things you want to do.

Make the remaining days of summer a time for embracing "food plus fitness equals health." The good news about this equation for good health is the myriad choices we have in today's food market and the diverse opportunities available to develop our physical well-being.

Unfortunately, food as a source of pleasure and as fuel for our internal engines has taken on a different meaning for many. When mealtime turns into a math exercise of adding up fat grams, counting calories or carbohydrate counting, it is easy to see why the pleasures of being well nourished are lost.

Ever wonder at the wide variance in a toddler's intake -- eating continually for a day and then seemingly living on play the next? The natural process of food regulation and listening to what our bodies tell us is lost little by little as we buy into strict diet regimens. Why do people have tremendous appetites when spending the day outdoors hiking or boating? How many muscles are getting flexed sitting on the couch or in front of the computer terminal? Until we get back to eating to appetite based on our energy needs, maintaining a healthy body size will be virtually impossible.

Not all people are created equal. The extra percentage of body fat women have is a natural phenomenon to assure stored energy needs for healthy pregnancy and breastfeeding. Young women who strive for too little body fat throw off the hormonal balance for normal menstruation. That extra muscle men have is why they need more calories compared with a woman of equal weight.

As we age, men and women alike lose a small percentage of muscle and it is muscle, or active tissue, that determines our energy needs. Why does Gram or Grandpa's appetite seem to decrease with age? This is a natural process unless we continue to stay active. And the trend is toward less activity -- using the golf cart instead of walking, buying one-floor houses without stairs and with smaller yards that require less yard work, less time chasing after young children.

As a registered dietitian, I counsel many people who need to lose weight as part of their treatment plan. Even modest weight loss of 5 to 10 percent (often as little as 5 to 10 pounds) naturally regulates blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol. This can be achieved by increasing activity level and getting back to eating based on energy needs. Remember the toddler example -- eating variances based on appetite, not some visual cue of food on television. It is only when the toddler gets exposed to junk food commercials or an adult's poor eating habits that their internal appetite mechanism starts to malfunction. For the athletes I counsel, it is all about improved performance.

Remember, there is value to any form of activity. Divide your activity into two categories: lifestyle and programmed. I encourage lifestyle activity as the first exercise goal because the number-one excuse for not exercising is lack of time. Lifestyle activities are simple parts of your daily routine. Use the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to the post office, park the car at the farthest end of the parking lot, mow your own lawn. Once these good habits are developed, it's a lot easier to stick with programmed or more traditional exercise activities such as running, biking and aerobics.

For the athlete getting ready for the season, fueling the body with a proper balance of nutrition to assure lasting energy stores from the food we eat can make the difference between winning and losing in the last few minutes of the big game.

Whatever the activity, the more enjoyable you make it, the more likely you'll stick with it. This explains why my teenage son would rather jog with his girlfriend than mow the lawn. Turn that evening chore of walking the dog into a special time just for you and your spouse (and, of course, the dog). Children don't mind helping rake leaves if they can jump in the leaf pile afterward. Take a jump yourself. Making it fun is the key to making "food plus fitness: a winning equation" your own personal theme for achieving lifelong health.
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