Get Fit Without Killing Yourself

Get Fit Without Killing Yourself

A common-sense approach to eating and exercise works wonders.

A common-sense approach to eating and exercise works wonders. By Brenda Cruz

Stuffed into a pair of cutoff jeans with a zipper that screamed for deliverance, Lydia De Jesus Juarez, 53, wore whatever fit the day she bravely returned to the gym. Armed with an arsenal of water, a head full of pep talks, and dreams of making weight loss more reality than fantasy, in she marched. But sometimes the best-laid plans of mice and men—well, you know the rest. Reality came quick.

“I was surrounded by slews of sweaty, well-toned youngsters,” says Juarez, a dental office manager in San Ramon, “and became painfully aware this venture would be more difficult and degrading than I imagined. After 10 minutes on the treadmill, I was cursing the happily running nymphs around me instead of aspiring to be them. What am I doing, I thought. I’m too busy, too tired, and like good food too much to take on this crusade. There’s got to be an easier way for someone my age who doesn’t give that much of a shit to be perfect.”

Fitness is fundamental to living well. What may not be necessary is killing oneself to get there, experts say. Baby boomers in particular have never known such pressure to look reality-TV fab and be in superhuman good health. Those lofty visions may be pushing this large, aging population into give-up mode. Research from Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to national disease prevention, shows baby boomers today are more obese at a younger age than the previous generation. As much as 62 percent claim to have obesity-related chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, arthritis, or cancer. Thus, the health-and-fitness industry has drawn a bull’s-eye on their foreheads, flinging a fat stack of products, fad diets, and mostly well-meaning advice at them like gluten-free hotcakes. For some, the information overload and push to give up what they enjoy is putting a bad taste in their mouths.

“It used to be as simple as don’t get too fat, get enough sleep, and get a little exercise,” says Antoinette Delatore, a 57-year-old sales associate from Livermore. “Being healthy seemed do-able. Now it’s high-protein, gluten-free, wheat-free, no sugar, blah, blah, blah. I’m not exactly sure what I should or shouldn’t be doing, so I’m doing nothing.”

Health and fitness professionals alike contend doing nothing should never be an option. But they also generally agree despite society’s shove to get fanatical about it, the path to being relatively healthy and fit is pretty simple. Boomers can make small, cost-free changes right now requiring only minor shifts in behavior. Weight loss and better fitness needn’t hinge on what not to eat, according to the experts. Cloning Christie Brinkley or Matthew McConaughey may not be the final result. But for the average person who wants to be generally healthy enough to enjoy life and needn’t look celebrity perfect, being consistent doing the bare minimum may suffice.

“I refuse to morph into what they say I should be,” says Juarez. “Doing what I can manage is good enough for me. Any more would require the kind of effort and stamina I lost somewhere in my 40s.”

Since obesity poses a gargantuan threat to the health of baby boomers, achieving a healthy weight is tantamount. There’s an onslaught of ways to shed pounds. But until one learns how to eat properly, permanent weight loss may always be a losing battle. Before talking food, it may be wise to talk behavior. Practicing some tried-and-true concepts people can live with might be the best recipe for long-term success. Here are some common-sense ways.

Stop eating so much. Literally. Research from the U. S. Department of Agriculture compiled from 1970 into the new millennium shows a steady, substantial increase in the amount of food delivered to the United States, directly coinciding with the obesity epidemic. Many Americans eat way too much food—especially when eating out. They go to all-you-can-eat buffets and serve themselves on hubcap-size plates, eating multiple servings. Recent research by professors Brian Wansink and Koert van Ittersum at Cornell University proved eating on a smaller plate can trick a person into feeling satisfied with less food. Their idea is related to the Delboeuf Illusion, which is a concept based on the science that if white space is left around the circle of a plate, people feel they need to eat more. Switching out full-size dinnerware with smaller pieces can help, suggest the professors. Boomers who already practice this agree.

“I always eat on a smaller plate, and I’m quite satisfied,” says Ray Denton, a 56-year-old software engineer from Hayward. “I’ve been doing it for so long that when I go to restaurants, I can only eat half my food. I take the rest home and have it for lunch the next day on a small plate, of course.”

Eating slower is another way to eat less. Most Americans race to finish a meal, chalking up mass calories before realizing they’re full. The North American Association for the Study of Obesity, a professional organization representing the interests of clinicians and physicians treating obesity, found when overweight people slowed down, they “magically” consumed less. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the brain to send out “full” signals, reports WebMD, the Internet medical giant. Avoiding distractions like TV or the telephone can help folks be more mindful of their eating pace. Bottom line: People who eat slower tend to be thinner, according to the NAASO.

“Growing up, my sister took forever to eat,” says 62-year-old Angela Polinski of Dublin. “It was so annoying. I’d wolf my dinner and be having seconds before she finished firsts. Of course, now I know that’s why she was skinny and I was fat. For years now, I sit with my little fork, knife, and napkin and actually chew my food. I’m nowhere near as heavy as I used to be.”

Research shows the timing of eating could also keep you trim and ward off chronic disease. For starters, Mom was right. Breakfast is indeed the day’s most important meal. An American Heart Association/Harvard study conducted over 16 years from 1992–2008 researched 26,902 male health professionals ages 45 to 82. Those who skipped breakfast had a 27 percent higher risk of heart attack or death than those who didn’t eat breakfast. Passing on the morning meal could cause binging later. That can spike blood sugar and pave the way for heart disease, according to the AHA.

Additionally, the old saying still rings true. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper, confirms Dr. Sanjay Gupta, resident M.D. on Cable News Network. Dinner should be the lightest meal, because burning calories in the evening when activity slows can be tough. Not eating after 6 p.m. or less than three hours before bedtime is another practice of the svelte. Most fitness experts swear eating five or six mini-meals a day guarantees weight control.

“When people, no matter what age, eat a little food every three hours or so, they prevent the body from storing fat,” says Rich Linnell, a certified fitness trainer and general manager of Fitness 19 in Pleasanton. “Clients often think it’s too much food. But in truth it staves off hunger, prevents insulin spikes, and keeps their metabolisms burning. It’s near impossible to be overweight when you follow this protocol.”

The pre-packaged weight-loss giants operate on the same principle, offering smaller meals plus snacks to consume in intervals throughout the day. Linnell thinks, why not just eat like that on your own for free?

For those who wish to eat healthily but don’t dig being deprived, a good rule to follow might be the good ol’ 80/20. Eating well-balanced meals 80 percent of the time and rewarding thyself with a few treats and cheats the other 20 percent can be a highly sustainable way to regulate weight, according to, an online leader in health matters. Healthy meals should include steamed, poached, or grilled lean proteins, low-fat dairy, unprocessed whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Cheats should not include too many fatty or high-calorie items, and portions must be controlled. For many, knowing they can splurge a little come week’s end makes this method easy to stick with.

“During the week, I’m good,” says Dominque Ward, 51, of Oakland. “I’ll cook something in the CrockPot and make sure I have salad most nights. But come the weekend, I eat what I want, within reason. I do especially like my sweets, so this works for me. Because if you told me I could never have another jelly doughnut as long as I live, well, you might as well just shoot me.”

Monitoring one’s weight and health all day could drive a person to drink. Just make it water, says Bob Harper, trainer on the Biggest Loser and author of Skinny Rules. In the book, he emphasizes that drinking water is the single, easiest, most-effective way to regulate weight, yet people don’t do it. It cleanses and hydrates the body, keeps all systems running smoothly, and aids in digestion. The proverbial recommended eight glasses a day might seem a tall order. Meyers suggests this instead: One glass in the morning, one before each meal, and one before bed. Just do it, he says.

Besides moderate changes in eating behaviors, health-and-fitness professionals stand by a few other simple health musts.

Do a little exercise. What’s s the bare minimum? Linnell recommends three hours a week. That’s it. And it doesn’t have to be Zumba, kick-boxing, or disco Pilates. Depending on one’s fitness goal (body shaping vs. heart health), walking, dancing, light weights, or just using one’s own resistance through modified pushups, squats, and lunges can do mucho for the bod and the ticker.

Meet the recommended amounts of fiber intake. Dr. Harpriya Singh, a gastroenterologist in Pleasanton, says fiber is essential to good colon health as it helps prevent polyps, the precursor to cancer. What’s more, fiber also helps digestion, lowers blood pressure, reduces cholesterol, supports heart health, and can help rid the body of toxins ingested through the typical American diet. The National Cancer Institute, the federal government’s principal agency for cancer research and training, studied 400,000 people and found over time, high-fiber diets substantially lowered risks of dying of any cause. The USDA recommends people consume 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories consumed per day.For women, that’s typically an average of 25 grams; men, 38 grams.

Finally, people simply need to learn how to chill. “There is no doubt stress negatively affects the body in various ways,” says Dr. Maliha Qadir, a family practitioner at Tri-Valley Medical Center in Pleasanton. “A good number of doctor’s appointments and even illnesses could be linked to this common state of unrest.” Stress in its many forms, from work pressure to anger to jealousy, can be correlated to weight gain, high blood pressure, headaches, anxiety and depression, and even many chronic illnesses. Folks need to learn ways to cope with life, jobs, relationships, in ways that prevent getting all riled up. Many find deep breathing, prayer, laughter, meditation, and developing a don’t-worry-be-happy attitude are effective ways to manage stress, which is essential for wellness.

But what is also good for boomers’ wellness, professionals say, is to take ownership of their well-being through loving themselves, life, people, and causes. That passion should carry into their golden years and beyond. In the end, their satisfaction with their own homeostasis and themselves is what matters most.

“I just need to survive the rest of my 50s and be ready for my 60s,” says Juarez. “And I’ m doing just fine. Not quite where I should be yet, but I’m a skosh less uncomfortable in my own skin, and my waistband breaths a little easier today than a few months ago. I’m far from media perfect or the Wonder Woman I once was, but I’m bad-ass enough for me. See my cape behind me,” she says with her chest puffed out and hands on her hips. “Pay no attention to those moth holes. It’s still waving isn’t it?”

Brenda Cruz is a freelance writer who lives in Pleasanton. This is her first article for The Monthly.

Margaretta K. Mitchell is a nationally known artist and professional photographer, author, and educator based in the East Bay.

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