More Diet Questions Answered: Buddies a Must? Cookie Avoidance? Swimming Bad for You?

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Q: I’ve heard a lot about the buddy system — losing more weight if you are doing it with another person. I have one friend I could ask, but she’s still focused on the quick fix. How important is it to have a buddy?

A: Yes, having a buddy can really help. There have been hundreds of studies showing that social support helps you to change behavior and empowers you to succeed. There’s even been a study from Ohio State University showing that social support is so powerful for mice that it can help minimize some of the worst physical damage to the brain caused by a heart attack.

Having a buddy to help you lose weight works in many ways. Here are a few:

Provides a method of sharing of information: For instance, a new healthy recipe, new iPhone app with a pedometer and calorie counter, the best walking routes, a fun dance class. It also helps with problem solving. Perhaps your buddy “has been through it before” and can share the wisdom of his/her positive and negative experiences.

Emotional sharing: It provides a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen.

Inspiration, courage and coaching: Maybe you’re having trouble getting out and walking, or maybe you need someone to talk to about an upcoming party you know will be filled with your biggest food triggers.

Whom should you choose? People you know? A support group or a person you just met? Recent research has demonstrated that social networks featuring many distant connections (e.g., “You’re trying to lose weight and are married — so am I — so let’s team up.”) produce the quickest change. But a new study by researchers at MIT Sloan School of Management reached a different conclusion: Individuals are more likely to acquire new “health practices” while creating networks with people they already know well.

Q: Are there any mind tricks you know of to avoid those delicious cookies I see for sale every morning in the lobby in my office building?

A: “Mind tricks?” — not exactly, but here are a few things you can do. First, make sure you’re well fed (not starving) when you pass through that lobby. Eat breakfast — a bowl of low–calorie cereal and skim milk, for example. For a few other suggestions see my Healthy Breakfast in 5 Minutes suggestions. Next, have a strong reason for wanting to lose weight. That means you need to know why you should pass up that cookie. Is it because you want to be fit and in shape for bathing suit season? Or do you want to be healthy again? Recent research reported in the Journal of Consumer Research found: “When people focus on the concrete aspects of how they want to achieve goals, they become more closed–minded and less likely to take advantage of opportunities that fall outside their plans. In contrast, people who focus on the why are more likely to consider out — of— plan opportunities to achieve their goals.” The researchers concluded: “Planning is more effective when people think abstractly, keep an open mind, and remind themselves of why they want to achieve a goal.” Click here to figure out your reason why.

There is also recent research from McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin showing that your ability to resist that tempting cookie depends on how big a threat you perceive it to be. In the study, participants were asked to estimate the calories in a cookie. Those participants with strong dieting goals construed the cookie to have more calories than it really did, and to be more damaging to their goal of losing weight. The message? If you have a real goal and desire, and create resistance skills, not willpower, you should be able to pass on the cookie. Try to stay occupied when you’re passing through the lobby. For instance, listen to music or talk on the phone (good time for a quick catch–up call with an old friend). Or see if you could use another entrance and avoid the lobby altogether. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding temptation.

Q: I was told that swimming doesn’t help you lose weight. Is that true?

A: A study appearing in The American Journal of Sports Medicine in June 1987 showed that after six months or slightly longer, women assigned to a walking program lost 10 percent of their initial weight; the women who cycled lost 12 percent; and the women who swam lost no weight. The results of this study show that both walking and cycling are effective methods of reducing body fat, but that swimming is not. In this study calorie intake was not monitored.

However, a more recent study from researchers at the University of Utah that appeared in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, did look at calorie intake. The researchers put 38 middle–aged obese women on a 13-week exercise–diet program and assigned the participants to one of three exercise groups: 1) walking on land, 2) swimming and 3) walking in water. Significant reductions in body weight — about 13 pounds — occurred in all groups.

One of the most critical components of any exercise program is how long you’ll stick to it — will you do it long term, or is it just another fad for you? Researchers at the University of Western Australia divided 116 people into two groups and put them on either a swimming or a walking program three times per week for six months. The retention and adherence rates were the same in both groups after 12 months, and both groups lost weight.

Swimming burns 422 calories per hour. Even treading water can burn 281 calories per hour.

If you do decide to use swimming as your exercise of choice, it’s probably not a good idea to swim in very cold water. Researchers at the University of Florida, Gainesville, looked at the effects of cold water on post–exercise energy intake in two groups — one that swam in 91.5–degree water and the other in 68–degree water. While the two groups had similar calorie burn after swimming, the group that swam in the colder water ate 44 percent more than the other group afterward.

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