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The importance of physical fitness cannot be emphasized enough. In today’s society that is moving towards a more sedentary lifestyle, there is a greater need than ever to increase the daily activity level to maintain both cardiovascular fitness and body weight.

Benefits of Physical Fitness

Staying active means keeping your body functioning at a high level. Regular exercise will maintain the performance of your lungs and heart to most efficiently burn off excess calories and keep your weight under control. Exercise will also improve muscle strength, increase joint flexibility and improve endurance.

Another main benefit of physical activity is that it decreases the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in America. Additionally, it can decrease your risk of stroke, colon cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. Regular exercise has been long associated with a fewer visits to the doctor, hospitalization and medication.

Exercising does not have to be something boring and dreaded. It can be something that you enjoy that helps to increase the overall happiness in your life, as well as relieve symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. Try to find some activities that give you pleasure, or even a buddy to do them with so that exercise is a fun and enjoyable activity (and one that you continue on a regular basis because it adds something good to your life).

What Activities Are Beneficial?

It is not what you are doing, as much as it is whether or not you are doing something. Any type of moderate activity like walking, swimming, biking or organized sports can contribute to your physical fitness. Explore your fitness options at your local gym, community center or community college for courses and organized activities that may suit your lifestyle and interests.

To get the most benefit, you should begin by warming up for 5 to 10 minutes to increase your blood flow and prepare your body for activity. Follow the warm up with several minutes of stretches to increase your flexibility and lower your risk for injury. Complete your selected exercise or activity for 20 to 30 minutes and conclude the workout with 5 to 10 minutes of cool down and stretching.

Who Needs Physical Fitness?

Everyone! It is important for all people to stay active throughout their lives. Because of busy work and home lives, more than 60% of Americans do not get the recommended amount of physical fitness daily and these numbers generally increase with age.

Throughout adulthood is one of the most important times to maintain an exercise regimen. This is the ideal time to maintain your weight, build strong bones and prevent many chronic health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

Many adults do too much exercise at once. After a long work-week, many people try to fit lots of activity into the weekend and push their bodies excessively. This sudden increase in activity can raise the risk of injury which would then stop activity for weeks. Experts recommend working out several times over the course of a week with varying exercises for the most benefit to your health.

Why the Weight Gain?

Person with a fat waist.

Obvious reasons for weight gain are taking in more calories than usual or reducing the amount of physical activity in your life. However, some people seem to gain weight even when they are eating and exercising the same as always. Let’s look deeper at possible reasons for weight gain.

Not Enough Sleep

Man working on the computer having a late night snack.

If you’re not sleeping, you have more chances to indulge in late-night snacking. This is obvious. However, there’s another reason lack of sleep might be adding on the pounds: biochemical changes in your body resulting from sleep deprivation can make you hungrier and leave you feeling less full after eating.

Stress

Man stressing out in traffic.

Cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone,” increases in our body when we’re stressed out. This hormone, in turn, increases our appetite. Add to that the tendency to reach for comfort foods at times of stress, and you have a perfect opportunity for weight gain.

Antidepressants

Antidepressant capsules and tablets.

A side effect of many antidepressant medications is weight gain. While you should never stop taking any medications on your own, you can talk to your doctor about changing your treatment plan if weight gain is troubling you. Some people may experience weight gain after the drug treatment is working, because they may and feel better and have a better appetite. Depression on its own can cause changes in weight as well.

Steroids

Anti-inflammatory steroid medication.

Steroid medications such as prednisone are well-known causes of weight gain due to fluid retention and increased appetite. The amount of weight gain depends both on the dose of the drug and the length of time it is taken. Steroids can also cause a temporary change in body fat distribution, with increased fat in the face, back of the neck, or the abdomen.

Drugs That May Cause Weight Gain

Box of pills and capsules for various conditions.

Other prescription drugs you take can also cause weight gain. Examples include antipsychotic drugs used to treat disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, as well as drugs that are used to manage seizures, migraines, diabetes, and hypertension. You can talk with your doctor about choosing medication options that have fewer side effects.

Don’t Be Quick To Blame the Pill

Birth control pills.

Many women believe taking combination oral contraceptives (birth control pills) causes weight gain. However, there is no scientific evidence this is the case. Some women may have mild fluid retention while taking the pill, but this is usually temporary.

Hypothyroidism

Women with her hands over her face.

Symptoms of an underactive thyroid gland include tiredness, feeling cold, and gaining weight. Having too low levels of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) slows your metabolism and increases the chance you’ll gain weight. Hypothyroidism can be treated with medications.

Don’t Blame Menopause

Women looking at her figure in the mirror.

Most women gain some weight during menopause due to a number of reasons. Aging slows the metabolism, so weight gain is likely if your dietary habits remain the same. Changes in lifestyle, like exercising less, can also play a role. Menopause can also affect the location of fat deposits in the body, increasing the likelihood of accumulating fat around the waist.

Cushing’s Syndrome

Back neck of an overweight man.

Cushing’s syndrome is a condition characterized by elevated levels of the hormone cortisol. It can occur if your body makes too much cortisol or if you take steroid medications for asthma, lupus, or arthritis. Cortisol excess can cause weight gain and an increase of fat around the face, neck, waist, and upper back.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) causes excessive body hair and acne.

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a hormonal condition that affects women of reproductive age. Women with PCOS typically have many small cysts within the ovaries. PCOS causes hormonal imbalances that can lead to excess body hair, acne, and insulin resistance, which can cause weight gain. In PCOS, the weight gain tends to occur in the abdominal area, increasing the risk for heart disease.

Quitting Smoking

Woman applying nicotine patch to her shoulder.

People who quit smoking may gain a small amount of weight. Most people who quit gain 10 lbs. or less. The reasons are varied, Without nicotine:

  • You may feel hungrier, although this effect tends to disappear after a few weeks.
  • Your metabolism may decrease.
  • You may enjoy food more or feel it tastes better, which could lead to overindulging.
  • You may eat more high fat or sugary snacks, or drink more alcohol.

Tip No. 1: Drink Plenty of Water or Other Calorie-Free Beverages.

A man drinks from a bottle of water.

Drink a glass of water before you dive in to a calorie-laden snack. Sometimes thirst can be confused with hunger, so if you drink water first you may feel less hungry. Herbal tea (unsweetened) and flavored sparking water are good options if you’re craving more than plain water.

Tip No. 2: Be Choosy About Nighttime Snacks.

A woman snacks on an apple and peanut butter.

After dinner is the most common time to indulge in mindless eating. Sitting in front of the TV, you don’t pay attention to the number of calories you consume. Try forbidding nighttime snacking, or plan for a low-calorie snack (such as half a cup of lowfat ice cream or a 100-calorie pack of cookies) at a certain time.

Tip No. 3: Enjoy your favorite foods.

An apple pie.

Moderation is the key to enjoying rich foods. You don’t have to eliminate them completely, but you can try buying only a small portion of candy instead of a bag or buying one fresh bakery cookie rather than a full box.

Tip No. 4: Eat Several Mini-Meals During the Day.

Types of different mini meals to be eaten throughout the day.

It’s hard to cut calories when you’re always hungry. People who eat four to five small meals a day report less hunger and are better equipped to control their weight. Divide your daily food consumption into small meals and snacks and spread them throughout the day. Try to eat more, earlier; make dinner the last time you eat in the day.

Tip No. 5: Eat Protein at Every Meal.

Salmon steaks cook on a grill.

Protein is more satisfying than carbohydrates or fats, plus, it keeps you feeling full for a longer time. Protein is also important for maintenance of muscle mass. Choose healthy proteins such as lean meats, seafood, egg whites, soy, nuts, beans, or yogurt and lowfat dairy products.

Tip No. 6: Spice It Up.

Jars of spices.

Flavorful foods can also help you feel satisfied and full. You may not eat as much if the food is full of flavor. Spices or chilies can help season your food, or try eating a red-hot fireball candy if you’re craving a sweet.

Tip No. 7: Stock Your Kitchen With Healthy, Convenient Foods.

Healthy foods stored in convenient containers.

Stock up your kitchen with healthy snacks and ingredients in advance. If you know you have the makings of a quick, healthy meal at home, you can avoid the fast-food line. Some good staples to keep on hand include whole-grain pasta and breads, frozen vegetables, lowfat cheese, canned beans and tomatoes, salad greens, and pre-cooked chicken breasts.

Tip No. 8: Order Children’s Portions at Restaurants.

A woman looks at a restaurant menu with her two children.

Ordering children’s portions in restaurants is a popular way to keep consumption to a reasonable level. Using smaller plates to make your portions appear bigger is a similar tactic. You’re more likely to feel satisfied when your plate looks full.

Tip No. 9: Swap a Cup of Pasta for a Cup of Vegetables.

Bowtie pasta salad.

Swapping one portion of starch (about a cup) for vegetables saves about 100-200 calories. Doing this for a year can lead to a full drop in dress or pants size.

Tip No. 10: Always Eat Breakfast.

A woman eats a bowl of cereal.

Skipping breakfast is a bad idea for those seeking to lose weight. Some studies show that skipping breakfast makes weight loss more difficult, since it leads to hunger and potential overeating later on in the day. Healthy breakfast choices include high-fiber grain cereals, lowfat milk and dairy products, and fruit.

Whether it’s playing football, swimming, jogging, kick-boxing or walking, active people (people who have rigorous exercise routines or play sports) or athletes need to eat a nutritious, balanced diet to fuel their body. Good nutrition, like any sporting event, has basic ground rules. Following these rules and getting plenty of practice will help active people¬† and athletes feel great!

What diet is best for active people? All active people need a diet that provides enough energy in the form of carbohydrates and fats as well as essential protein, vitamins and minerals. This means a diet containing 55-60 percent of calories from carbohydrates (10 to 15 percent from sugars and the rest from starches), no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and the remaining (about 10-15 percent) from protein. That translates into eating a variety of foods every day – grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, lean meats, and low fat dairy products. The base of the diet should come from carbohydrates in the form of starches and sugars. Fluids, especially water, are also important to the winning combination. Dehydration can stop even the most fit individual from playing his or her best game.

Are carbohydrates important for active people? When starches or sugars are eaten, the body changes them all to glucose, the only form of carbohydrate used directly by muscles for energy. Whether carbohydrates are in the form of starches (in vegetables and grains), sucrose (table sugar), fructose (found in fruits and juices) or lactose (milk sugar), carbohydrates are digested and ultimately changed to glucose.

The body uses this glucose in the blood for energy. Most glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. During exercise glycogen is broken down in the muscles and provides energy. Usually there is enough glycogen in muscles to provide fuel for 90-120 minutes of exercise. Most exercise and sport games do not use up glycogen stores so eating carbohydrates during the activity usually isn’t needed. But for some active people, eating or drinking carbohydrates during exercise helps maintain their blood glucose and energy levels.

Most active people need not be concerned with “carbohydrate loading,” the special technique of eating a lot of carbohydrates for several days before an endurance event. Instead, focus on getting enough carbohydrates everyday. The best way to ensure plenty of energy for exercise is to eat a nutritious, balanced diet that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat with lots of different foods.

Do active people need extra protein or protein supplements to build muscles? No. Muscles develop from training and exercise. A certain amount of protein is needed to help build the muscles, but a nutritious, balanced diet that includes two or three servings from the meat/bean/egg group (6-7 ounces total) and two to three servings of dairy daily will supply all of the protein that the muscles need. Extra servings of protein in foods or protein supplements do not assist in muscle development. Unlike carbohydrates, protein cannot be stored in the body and any excess will be burned for energy or stored as body fat.

What should an person eat before, during and after exercise? The most important thing is to concentrate on eating a nutritious, balanced diet every day. This provides plenty of energy to grow and exercise. Here are a few tips about eating before, during and after exercise.

Before

  • Have some high carbohydrate foods like bananas, bagels or fruit juices. These foods are broken down quickly and provide glucose to the muscles.
  • The timing of this meal depends on the persons preference for eating before exercise, but researchers have found that eating something from 1 to 4 hours before exercise helps keep plenty of blood glucose available for working muscles.
  • It is also critical to drink plenty of cool water before exercise to keep muscles hydrated.

During

  • Perspiration and exertion deplete the body of fluids necessary for an optimal performance and lead to dehydration. It is important to drink plenty of cool water, at least a half a cup of water every 20 minutes of exercise. Adding a teaspoon of sugar, a little fruit juice or a small amount of powdered drink mix flavors plain water and may encourage fluid intake.
  • Usually there is no need to worry about replacing carbohydrates unless the exercise lasts over 90 minutes and is hard and continuous. When this happens, drinking a sports drink or other beverage with some sugar in it will fuel and water to the muscles being exercised.
  • Make a homemade sports drink by mixing no more than 4 teaspoon of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and some flavoring (like a teaspoon of lemon juice) in 8 ounces of water.

After

  • If the exercise was strenuous and lasted a long time, glycogen stores may need refueling. Consuming foods and beverages high in carbohydrates right after exercise will replenish glycogen stores if they are low after exercising.
  • No matter the intensity of the exercise, it’s important to drink plenty of water and eat a nutritious, balanced meal that has lots of carbohydrate rich foods such as grains, pastas, potatoes, vegetables and fruits. A teaspoon of sugar, at only 15 calories* per teaspoon, adds flavor to these foods and may increase taste appeal.

*Note: Like all carbohydrates, sugar has 4 calories per gram, and there are 4 grams to a teaspoon.