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Achieving Optimal Physical Fitness Through Science, Not Wishful Thinking

Gallup just released the results of their latest poll on adult obesity in the United States, finding that obesity increased from 25.5% in 2008 to 27.7% in 2014 (“In U.S., Adult Obesity Rate Now at 27.7%,” n.d.).  Health can be best defined as the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being—it is more synonymous to well-being than simply a part of it.  Obesity, and even being overweight, subtracts from one's health.  Being obese increases one's risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and some cancers (“Obesity,” n.d.).  Being physically fit has countless physical, psychological, and even social benefits that can drastically enhance one's well-being.  As we will see, however, the U.S. government's idea of health excludes millions of very fit Americans.  Thinking critically about health is one instance where reason and skepticism can literally save one's life—and at the very least, make it a heck of a lot better.

Reading the Fine Print

See that guy in that photo to the right? At 42 years old, he exercises daily, runs an average of 5 miles a day, and can bench press over 250 pounds—but at 5' 11" and 182lbs, he is technically overweight.*

People can be healthy and extremely fit and still be technically "overweight" and even "obese," because the body mass index (BMI) calculations do not factor in frame-type (e.g., "big-boned") and muscularity (“Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk,” n.d.).  Therefore, using BMI to measure the health of a nation might function as a useful heuristic, but can be wildly misleading for any given individual—especially one engaged in frequent strength training.  A heuristic is like a rule of thumb that is useful to the extent that it is a quick and effortless way to arrive at a probabilistic answer.  When making a decision about your own health, however, ditch the heuristic and look at the specifics.  Look at yourself in the mirror—naked (preferably in private), think about the kind of physical activity you do, and don't bother asking your significant other if you look fat.  Now you are ready to calculate your BMI.  If your BMI suggests that you can lose a few pounds, as does your mirror, then read on.

Magic Sells Better Than Truth

It should go without saying that wishful thinking accounts for a significant portion of the $60 billion annually spent on weight loss attempts by Americans.  Heck, if 74% of Americans think they are immortal (i.e., believe in eternal life in some form; Street, NW, Washington, & Inquiries, n.d.) is it that far-fetched to think taking some pills can give you the perfect beach body?  Most people believe what they want to believe, not what is most likely to be true.  But you are not like most people.  Don't trust infomercials, personal testimonials, anecdotes, checkout counter magazines, or fad diets.  Trust science.

The "Secret" to Weight Loss

Burn more calories than you consume through a balance of diet and physical activity.  There you have it.  As you can see, there is not much marketable about this "secret."  It is a scientific and biological fact.  If you trust science and the laws of nature (which you should), then you can adjust your lifestyle to achieve and maintain your ideal body weight for your build.  Don't be distracted by details such as genetic disposition to obesity (sorry, some of us have to work harder), metabolism, weight of muscle compared to fat, bloating, or even types of food consumed (proper nutrition is beyond the scope of this article—and my expertise).  Just remember to burn more calories than you consume and you will lose weight.  I strongly suggest the "My Fitness Pal" app to track your calories consumed and burned—at least until you have a good sense of what you can eat given your daily activity.  Don't be discouraged by temporary weight gain or what appears to be a plateau.  Losing "a pound a week" means a pound a week on average.  You may not lose a pound for 3 weeks, then one day find yourself 3 pounds lighter.  Don't give up!  Trust science!  Once again, if you burn more calories than you consume you will lose weight, otherwise you would be defying the laws of physics.

People naturally want to conserve energy and minimize psychological stress often caused by uncomfortable truths.  Paradoxically, a good diet, frequent exercise, and a healthy body weight is perhaps the best way to conserve energy and minimize psychological stress.  Walk the talk—be a living example and show others that a reason-based approach to health works.  Then when others ask you your secret, send them here :)

 * I know this because that guy is me.  I lost just under 20 pounds in the past few months by taking this science-based approach. Also, keep in mind that I don't look as good in color.

Action Items

1) Download or sign up for My Fitness Pal (or similar calorie management tool). 2) Set your weight loss goal using the software, and it will figure out your calorie allowance per day.  If you are like me and love to eat, then you will need to beef up your cardiovascular exercise to "earn" more calories.  I am unlucky in that I love food, including sweets, but I am lucky in that I equally love exercise.  You need to find this balance—I can't stress this enough.  If you are constantly hungry, eating foods that are not satisfying, depriving yourself of too many culinary delights, dreading your workouts each day, or otherwise associating negative emotions with calorie maintenance, any weight loss you manage to achieve will be temporary.  Find what works for you!

Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/lose_wt/risk.htm#limitations
In U.S., Adult Obesity Rate Now at 27.7%. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/170264/adult-obesity-rate.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_content=morelink&utm_term=All%20Gallup%20Headlines
Obesity. (n.d.). Text. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/obesity.html
Street, 1615 L., NW, Washington, S. 700, & Inquiries, D. 20036 202 419 4300 | M. 202 419 4349 | F. 202 419 4372 | M. (n.d.). Chapter 1: Religious Beliefs and Practices. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2008/06/01/chapter-1-religious-beliefs-and-practices/

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Positive humanism is an applied secular humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing. As an applied philosophy its focus is on ideas that lead to increased well-being. As a secular humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical.

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