Recently, I was sitting in the lobby of a large company awaiting the human resources staffer in charge of the company’s fledgling wellness program. The time was just after noon and people were coming in and out, either on their way to or returning from lunch. Many had large, colorful bags filled with fast food in one hand and huge plastic cups of soda in the other. I sat there for 10 minutes watching this sample of America pass by and two people stood out… they were the only thin ones.
Before you accuse me of some sort of “weightism” you should know I understand each of us makes choices about what to eat and whether or not to exercise and I make no judgments. At the same time, the results of these choices manifest in different ways. Everyone knows of someone who eats donuts for breakfast, pizza for lunch and nachos for dinner, yet never seems to gain weight. However, appearances can be deceiving, even when it comes to good health. No matter how fat or thin you are, what you eat and your level of physical activity plays a large part in determining your risk for what is known as metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of medical disorders, which increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. However, excepting major heritable problems, an errant lifestyle is responsible for the majority of lipid and metabolic disorders. Therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLC) can not only improve the lipid, glucose and weight measurables, which indicate a risk for metabolic syndrome, but may also prevent the associated diseases, which take far too many lives each year.
In a three-year study conducted by the Diabetes Prevention Program, participants at risk for developing diabetes lost an average of 8.8 pounds (I know what you’re thinking, “THAT’S ALL?”), yet new onset diabetes was reduced 58 percent. Those over the age of 60 cut their risk by more than 70 percent. This remarkable outcome was achieved with modest dietary changes and about 1000 calories worth of exercise a week. This study did not measure the changes in body composition and waist size, which inevitably follow regular exercise and improvements in diet.
A 2008 Australian study did measure the changes in waist circumference and body fat of 78 children over the course of eight weeks. The children performed two sets of 11 resistance exercises twice a week. With no controlled changes to diet or prescription for other exercise, the waist sizes and total fat mass of the children dropped. The children’s risk for developing diabetes also fell because their insulin sensitivity improved.
Another notable example of the effectiveness of TLC is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) trial, which significantly lowered the blood pressure of participants in just three weeks. Using changes in diet alone, the 459 adults reduced their consumption of saturated fats, red meat and refined sugar and ate more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. When protein intake was increased with the inclusion of more poultry, fish and nuts, even greater gains resulted.
Beyond blood pressure and other benchmark numbers such as HDL and LDL cholesterol, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in 2002, which demonstrated a sometimes overlooked value of even moderate exercise. Participants walked approximately 12 miles a week at 40 to 55 percent of their aerobic capacity. At the end of the study, LDL particle concentration was significantly reduced, although the conventional lipid profiles did not change. This is not to mention improved artery function, which comes with regular exercise. In other words, you just helped your heart with that 30 minute walk.
Collectively, these studies and the more than 175 other TLC efficacy trials published since 2000, indicate a healthy diet and regular exercise lower your risk of developing a host of debilitating and often deadly diseases. The only question is: What’s for lunch, a turkey sandwich and a walk, or a burger from the drive-through?