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Fighting Fat : Exercise Is Called the Key in Keeping Excess Pounds Off

Weight loss is a multibillion-dollar industry. It includes programs--the good, the bad, the ugly--that worsen a weight problem, promise to change it overnight or, in the rare cases, promote healthy lifelong change. It is especially important now. A federal panel has just concluded that weight loss is as serious a national problem as smoking. In a three-part series, The Times takes a look at the impact of weight loss programs on people in San Diego County--from diet to exercise programs, from snake-oil remedies to the traumas of morbid obesity. Today's segment takes a look at exercise, the "forgotten component" in the weight-loss equation.

April 10, 1985|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Linnea Federman used to be fat.

She used to weigh 155. Now she weighs 120, an exercise fanatic and an ex-smoker. She didn't lose by starving, spending thousands of dollars on fad diets or standing on her head after taking a grapefruit pill. She did it with exercise.

And perseverance.

"I got rid of it gradually," she said, "which I've found is the only way."

Federman is a behavioral scientist and consultant to Fitness Unlimited, a Pacific Beach health club. She counsels a lot of women who come in desperate, frustrated, bitterly unhappy--they've tried just about everything.

And everything has failed.

Many have run the gamut of commercial diet centers, which, to Federman's mind, do more harm than good.

'Forgotten Component'

"They stink," she said angrily. "They don't educate the client. Sure, a person sees some loss, but at the end hasn't learned anything. Contact most of those people five years or less after they've left a program, and they'll probably have gained all that they lost and more. Commercial programs are nothing but rip-offs."

Federman sees exercise as "the forgotten component" in the weight-loss equation--and the most essential. Five years ago, she began running and cut out red meat and sugar. She has reduced her percentage of body fat from 29% to a Twiggy-ish 20%. (For women, 25% is normal.) She looks and feels "a thousand times" better.

Now she runs, does aerobics and swims. She also has a sunnier outlook and can't imagine having seen herself as "a fattie."

James White is an exercise physiologist at UC San Diego and the author of a book, "Jump for Joy," on the wonders of mini-trampolines. He also is a champion skier and runner, and an expert on the dangers of second-hand cigarette smoke.

White has a clue to what happens to the Linnea Federmans of the world. He has seen similar cases in his laboratory at UCSD--roughly 1,500 women who volunteered to be test cases.

Need for 'Smooth Regulation'

Over a five-year period, White discovered that women who lost four to five pounds a month--through exercise and reducing body fat--were able to keep the weight off for good.

"If a (person) wants to lose 20 to 30 pounds a month and does," he said, "she usually gains back everything, plus a pound or two more. It's happened in a thousand cases. We're completely disenchanted with all these crazy diets. They're really a fraud.

"The big losses are 70% water--almost no body fat at all, and darn it, that's what you've gotta lose. When the body perceives it's being starved (as it is in fad diets), it secretes hormones. The basal metabolic rate decreases 5% to 25%.

"As a result, fat cells are not released into the bloodstream. Energy is derived by breaking down muscle protein and retaining fat. The body's trying to defend itself against a certain set point. And the only way to change the point is to trick it, slowly, with smooth regulation."

White, a lean, wiry, intense man with light hair and dark eyes, disagrees that exercise is forgotten. Commercial programs know it's there, he said, but they ignore it.

"They don't discuss it, fearing a person might not buy the method if they somehow get hooked on exercise," he said. "It's such a con job."

White recommends cutting calories by only 300 a day.

"If they try for more, they get hungry and cheat. The point is, don't starve 'em."

Several Types of Exercise

He adds to that a rigid exercise regimen, done every day if possible. Knowing that some people will fudge, he requires six days of exercise a week. It should be exercise the person enjoys, and preferably several different types.

"Say I recommend jogging and the person won't jog," he said. "Then where are we? I try to find one a person will do. If they're indoor-oriented, get 'em jumping on a rebounder (a mini-trampoline) or bicycling indoors (on a stationary vehicle). Outdoors, have them swim, walk or race-walk--that's really getting big in San Diego. What they've got to remember is, for every mile a person travels--walking, jogging, running--they're burning off 100 calories per mile."

Federman says that "exercise is paramount." When a woman came to her weighing 25 pounds over ideal weight and with a body fat percentage of 32--"a sedentary housewife, porking it away"--she immediately suggested aerobics. She did an analysis of the woman's fat sources and recommended 1,200 calories a day (hardly starvation). She helped the client to discover what emotions were associated with her overeating and how she was rationalizing her behavior.

The client has since lost 20 pounds and reduced her body fat by 7 percentage points, giving her a leaner look and, Federman said, "a conqueror's self-image."

Paul Ward is director of education, research and development for the Health and Tennis Corp. of America, which owns Holiday Health Spas. There are two in San Diego County, in Mission Valley and the South Bay.

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