© 1997-2020 FNX Corporation and Trustees of Dartmouth College. All Rights Reserved.

CHAPTER 1: Exercise and Eating Well

This Chapter has information that can help build your confidence about exercising and eating well regardless of how heavy or "out of shape" you may be.

A Sane Approach to Exercise

Regular activity and exercise are important for staying healthy and feeling good. Exercising is like making a deposit in your "health bank". A positive balance helps you recover from injury or illness. It also helps you maintain or regain the ability to do things you want to do.

When it comes to exercise, every little bit helps. Your body responds to the demands you make on it. Muscles shrink or grow; joints become stiffer or more flexible; bones become weaker or stronger; heart, lungs and circulation become less or more efficient. Regular exercise will also help reduce fatigue, depression, constipation, and sleep problems. For all these reasons people who exercise regularly seem to live longer and better.

From thousands of adults who have used Problem Solving the most common suggestion about exercise was to walk regularly each day. Picking a time each day and having friends to join were common methods to make sure that regular walking happened. Regular walking is something most adults can do year after year. Unless you set a plan and have friends to help you, you are much less likely to be successful.

For example:

  • Only about four of every ten adults who are of normal weight exercise regularly at least 20 minutes a day.
  • Only about two of every ten adults who are are very overweight (obese) exercise regularly at least 20 minutes a day.

When normal weight adults who do not exercise regularly decide to exercise, only three of ten (30%) feel sure they will do it. Even fewer very overweight adults are confident they can change their eating habits or exercise regularly.

How to do it?

Walk without stopping or use a stationary cycle for at least 20 minutes, 3 times a week to make your heart beat a little faster and to make your breathing a little harder. This activity does not need to be all at once; it can be spread throughout the day.

How you feel is may be an easier guide for walking than trying to follow your "target heart rate". If you can sing, you are walking too slowly. If you are too short of breath to talk, you are walking too fast.

Running for some adults is preferred to walking. However, up to four of every ten adults will have an injury to their legs or feet during a year. Good runners make sure they learn from others about how to reduce their chance of injury.

Exercising with slow stretching relaxes muscles and increases flexibility. Gentle movement lubricates joints and reduces pain.

The following is very basic, easy-to-do program that involves the use of weights and a chair. All the listed stretching and lifting movements should be slow and not cause pain.

  • Purchase a set of 2 pound (1 kilogram: kg) weights you can put around your ankles or carry in your hands. You can add more weight later, if you wish. You generally do not need more than 5 pounds (2kg) in a weight pack.
  • Select a weight that doesn't seem heavy. Strap the weight pack to your wrists, sit as erect as possible in the chair and begin.
  • Move weights slowly- take about 6-9 seconds for each weight movement and rest between each for 2-3 seconds.
  • Use weights correctly-- don't swing the weights; don't start with too heavy a weight.
  • Rest between repetitions (A repetition is a weight movement.) Try to do 8 slow repetitions -- say 1 Mississippi, 2 Miss.., etc.-- and then rest for 1-2 minutes. Skip a day between these work outs because your muscles need a rest.
  • Don't forget your abdominal (stomach) muscles. Do 15-30 partial sit-ups with knees bent daily to keep the abdominal muscles in shape. This helps your back!
  • Note that these exercises can be used to improve balance, flexibility, and strength.

Record the weight and total repetitions for each limb to see your progress.

1. Elbow Bend (weight on wrist).

Person lifting arm
  1. Sit upright in the chair with your arms hanging down at your side.
  2. Pretend that you have an apple or a drink in your hand and slowly move your hand to your mouth.
  3. Let your hand return to your side.
  4. After 8 elbow bends, repeat (b) and (c) for the other arm.

2. Knee Straighten (weight on ankles).

Person lifting leg

(a) Sit upright in the chair with your feet flat on the floor. You may grip the side of the chair.

(b) Slowly raise your ankle in front of you, as though you were trying to point your foot to the sky. Hold for 30 seconds.

  1. Let your foot return to the floor.
  2. After 8 times do knee straightening for the other leg.

3. Wrist over Head (weight on wrist).

  1. While sitting upright begin with your wrist touching your chest.
  2. Slowly 'Raise your hand' as though you were in school.
  3. Return your wrist to your chest.
  4. After 8 times of 'raise your hand' use the other arm.

4. Wrist Over Head to Back (weight on wrist).

Person lowering arm
  1. While sitting upright begin with your wrist touching your chest.

(b) Now slowly move your wrist over your head as though you were going to scratch your back between your shoulders.

  1. Return your wrist to your chest.
  2. After 8 times of 'scratching your back' use the other arm.

5. Knee Straighten (weight on ankles).

Person lifting both legs

Do exercise #2 by slowly raising both feet together in front of you. Keep tummy muscles tight. (Remember: 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, ...)

6. Hand Touch Over Head (weights on wrists).

Person lifting both arms

(a) While sitting upright in the chair with your arms hanging down at your side slowly move your hands and touch them lightly over your head.

(b) While your hands are touching over your head try to move your elbows slowly backwards so that you can't see them.

  1. Return your hands to your side and repeat 8 times.

7. Toe Stands (weight on ankles).


(a) Stand flat-footed behind the chair and hold onto its backrest for balance only.

  1. Slowly stand on your tiptoes.
  2. Return to your flat-foot position.
  3. Repeat 8 times.

8. Knee Lifts (weight on ankles).

Person holding onto chair and lifting knees

(a) Stand as far as you can away from the back of the chair while holding onto its backrest for balance.

(b) Slowly lift your knee in front of you as though you were trying to lift your foot over a high step. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 8 times.

  1. After 8 times, repeat with the other knee.

9. Heel Lifts (weight on ankles).

Person holding onto chair and lifting heel back

(a) Stand flat-footed behind the chair and hold onto its backrest for balance.

(b) Slowly lift your heel behind you as far as you can by bending your knee. Hold for 10 seconds.

  1. After 8 times repeat with the other heel.

10. Leg and Side (weight on ankles).

Person holding onto chair and lifting legs to the side
  1. Stand flat-footed behind the chair and hold onto its backrest for balance.
  2. While keeping your knee straight slowly move your leg to the side by raising it away from the floor. Do not bend or lean to one side. Keep shoulders over hips.
  3. After 8 times, repeat with the other leg.

11. Leg Backwards (weight on ankles).

Person holding onto chair and lifting heels back with straight legs
  1. Stand flat-footed behind the chair and hold onto its backrest for balance.
  2. Keeping your knee straight, slowly raise it backwards behind you. Hold for 10 seconds.
  3. After 8 times, repeat with the other leg.

Good Eating

Everyone knows that eating only one type of food, eating to the point of being overweight, or not eating to the point of starvation is bad for health. Everyone knows that Eating Well is a good thing -"we are what we eat" - the saying goes. But it is not always easy to Eat Well. And it is not easy to understand all the claims and counterclaims about the benefits of different food, vitamins, minerals, and food supplements.

What everyone needs to understand are "calories" and the percent of calories from fat and protein. When food is used in the body, it produces energy for heat, growth, and life. This energy is measured in calories. Too many calories every day above what are needed makes a person add too much fat. The internet has calculators that change your age, weight, height, and usual activities into needed calories. A typical adult needs about 2000 calories a day.

To understand your needs, for AT LEAST ONE DAY, carefully read food labels. Look at the total calories you get and the percent of calories from fat and protein. Most food labels now tell you the Daily Value (DV) as a percentage. If your total DV of fat, fiber, salt (sodium), and carbohydrates (starches and sugars) each is near 100% and you are a typical "2000" calorie-a-day person, you are doing fine.

Try to keep fat at less than 30% each day. (30% fat in a day is about 2 cheeseburgers or two beef frankfurters). To get the needed fat in your diet, try to have "good vegetable oils" such as olive, canola, peanut, corn and sunflower,safflower, and soybean oils.

Your body loses proteins every day. They have to be replaced. Proteins are the building blocks for your body. Proteins come from lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, or peanut butter.Try to keep protein more than 15% of DV.

The list below gives a recommended range of servings per day and size of serving. The lowest number is for older, inactive adults; the highest for very active, younger adults.

  • Breads, cereals, rice and pasta -- 6-11 servings a day (one serving: a slice of bread, 1/2 cup of pasta)
  • Fruits -- 2-4 servings a day (one serving: an apple, 3/4 cup of juice)
  • Vegetables -- 3-5 servings a day (one serving: 1/2 cup cooked, 1 cup raw)
  • Lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts -- 2-3 servings a day (serving: 1 egg, 6 ounces meat, 1/2 cup beans)
  • Milk, cheese, yogurt -- 2-3 servings a day ( serving: 1 cup or 1.5 ounces of cheese)


Vitamins, Minerals and Diet Supplements

Many important vitamins, minerals, and "good fatty acids" can be missing if you don't eat a mix of foods as listed above. Since many adults DO NOT eat a portion of fruits and vegetables each day, the sale of vitamins pills, minerals pills, and other supplements is big business. However, no one is sure if the use of these vitamins, minerals, and supplements improves health. For example, studies show that when taken by well-nourished older persons, multivitamins do not reduce the number and severity of "colds". Vitamins E and C supplements do not reduce risks from hardening of the arteries.

Calcium needs increase during the teen years for bone growth. Women past menopause and older men may develop a disorder called osteoporosis which thins out the bones and often leads to painful and disabling fractures. Older people should pay particular attention to their need for calcium (and Vitamin D).

Including foods that are high in calcium in your daily diet is one way to help protect against osteoporosis. These foods include milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, canned salmon, and other foods. If you can't drink milk try tofu, sardines, and yogurt for the necessary calcium. The daily recommended calcium intake is 1500 mg; a full glass of milk contains about 300 mg.

Women under the age of 50 require 50% more iron than do men. High iron foods include green vegetables, raisins, and fortified cereals. Iron supplementation beyond what is contained in a regular diet may be harmful for post menopausal women and men.

Another important part of the diet is fiber which is indigestible plant material. The best way to include fiber in the diet is to eat whole grain breads and cereals and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Adding a few tablespoons of unprocessed bran, which is high in fiber, to cereal and other foods is a good way to add additional fiber.

What's the Easiest Way to Shop Well?

Your grocery list may include both fresh and processed foods. Buy enough fresh fruits and vegetables to last only a few days. They will lose their freshness and some nutrients if stored too long. Meats will stay fresh in the refrigerator for varying amounts of time. Ground beef, stew beef, poultry, and fish can be kept safely for only 1 or 2 days and should be frozen if kept longer. Roasts, chops, and steaks can be refrigerated 3 to 5 days before you use them.

Here are some other hints:

  • Decide which size item is best for you. A large can or package may be cheaper per unit, but it is not a bargain if most of the contents are thrown away. Consider sharing large packages.
  • Frozen vegetables purchased in bags are economical because you can use small amounts at a time.
  • If an item at the meat or fresh produce counter is too large, ask an employee to repackage it.
  • Read the content labels on packaged and canned foods. The item that is present in the largest amount is listed first. The ones that follow are present in decreasing amounts. The amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and sodium per serving is also listed.
  • Be careful, some canned foods may be high in salt content. "Reduced" cholesterol and sodium foods means that they have 75% less than the regular food - they often do have some cholesterol or salt.
  • Always check packages for freshness dates.

Unit pricing is useful because it lets you know which brand or package size costs less. Plain (generic) label or store brands are usually cheaper than name brands, with little difference in flavor or nutritional value.

Mealtime for the Single Person

Your eating schedule can be made to suit your own needs. For example, you may want to eat your main meal at noon. Or you may prefer frequent small meals throughout the day. An attractive table and music can help make mealtime appealing. Here are other ideas:

  • Invite a friend or family member for lunch or dinner. (It's more fun to cook for someone else and the invitation may be returned!)
  • Eat in a different place, such as the living room or outside on the porch.
  • Join or start a "pot-luck" club where everyone brings a prepared dish.
  • If you are an older adult, check with a local agency on aging to find out if your neighborhood provides free or low cost meals for older people at a community center, church, school, or in your own home. These meals offer good food and a chance to be with other people.

For Vegetarians, Serious Athletes, and Heavy Exercisers

If you are a strict vegetarian, you should talk to a registered dietician. It is particularly difficult to get all of the needed proteins, vitamins, and minerals if you are a vegetarian and eat no milk products or eggs. Protein intake is the most important concern, and you might also need vitamin B12. In general, a vegetarian has to consume a lot more food to equal the caloric intake of someone who also eats meats, poultry, and fish. Most vegetarians eat milk products which greatly improves the chances for getting necessary calories and vitamins.

The active athlete who engages in 1 hour of heavy exercise needs 400-700 extra calories above the usual recommended levels.

An athlete should increase fluid intake for several days before an event.

Regular, high intensity athletes may also need increase their intake of iron and several micro-nutrients unless they are very good at eating very balanced diets. They may need to discuss their needs with a dietician.

For the Older Adults

The basic guidelines for a nutritious diet are the same for most healthy adults. Older people need to pay special attention to the quality of the foods they eat and the amount of liquids they drink.

Many people are attracted to ads for vitamins and minerals which imply that they will improve your appearance, give your sex life a boost, prevent or cure your diseases, and even lengthen your life. Most of us can get the nutrients we need by eating a wide range of nutritious foods each day.

Some elderly people do not eat enough food, particularly foods that supply the necessary nutrients. As a result, they may not get the vitamins, minerals, and calories they need to stay healthy and active.

If you answer yes to two or more of the statements below, you may be at nutritional risk.

  • you weigh less than 100 pounds (45kg)
  • you have lost more than 10 pounds (5kg) without trying in the past 6 months
  • you have an illness or condition that made you change the kind and/or amount of food you eat
  • you eat few fruits, vegetables, or milk products
  • you have more than three drinks of wine, beer or liquor almost every day
  • you are not always able to shop, cook, or feed yourself
  • you do not have enough money to buy the food you need
  • you have a mouth or tooth problem that makes it hard to eat

Digestive problems, chewing difficulties, and the use of certain drugs all can interfere with good nutrition. People with these problems may benefit from a dietary supplement.

What About Fluids?

If you are ill, and do not eat food or drink any fluids for 24 hours, you will lose about 5 pounds (2kg) of water from your body. Older persons don't have as strong a thirst drive as younger persons, so you might not even notice how dried out (dehydrated) you are. This water loss can make you at high risk for falls and many other problems.

Many older persons are taking "fluid pills: diuretics" so they may think that not drinking water is good. In almost every case, this is wrong. "Fluid pills: diuretics" are for getting rid of extra salt from your body. Avoiding salt is important if you are taking these pills. Drinking three large glasses of water or salt- free liquids each day is very important.

Increase Your Confidence about Exercise and Eating Well

To change your exercise and eating habits, Go TO Problem Solving

When should you be concerned about your weight? The Table illustrates "pay attention" and "trouble" weights.

Your Height without Shoes Pay Attention Trouble
5 feet over 128 over 148
5 feet 4 inches over 146 over 169
5 feet 8 inches over 164 over 190
6 feet over 184 over 213
6 feet 4 inches over 205 over 238
Your Height without Shoes Pay Attention Trouble
152 cm over 58kg over 67kg
163cm over 62kg over 77kg
173cm over 74kg over 86kg
183cm over 84kg over 97kg
193cm over 93kg over 108kg

If you you have to "pay attention" you need to be more careful keeping track of your calories. You should also pay attention if you have gained more than 20 pounds (8 kg) since your twentieth birthday or you now have a lot of fat around your waist.

"Trouble" weight means just that...trouble with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and a much shorter life.

We gain weight because we eat more calories each day than we need.

How to lose weight? Keep a diary record of what you eat. After a week select the high calorie food you often eat that you can do without. Then don't eat it. For example if you switch to low fat milk instead of whole milk (1 cup a day) you could loose 5 pounds (2 kg) a year. Eliminate toast, jam, and butter in the morning, and you'll lose 16 pounds (7kg).

If you have not lost weight, continue tracking what you eat in the diary, and after several more weeks, pick another food to eliminate. Expect to lose only a few pounds/kg a month if you want to really keep weight off. (No more than 10% of your weight in six months).

Play it smart with your appetite. Slow your chewing of regular meals and munch on water-filled, high bulk food (like apple slices or a carrot). These foods make you feel full without giving you a lot of calories.

  • Avoid too many concentrated carbohydrates, try to change snack habits. Much better than chips, candy, and cookies are low-salt crackers, fruit, juices, and vegetables.

Try to cut back on sugar. Keep the sugar bowl off the table. Decrease the amount of candy and pastry you eat. Avoid desserts and soft drinks and fruit drinks that are high in sugar. Check the ingredient label, and avoid food that has sugar high on the ingredient list. Concentrated sugars to avoid are glucose, sucrose, corn syrup, and honey.

  • Try to cut back on some fats in your diet. Broil or bake foods rather than frying them. Chicken may have less fat than beef but when deep fried, chicken has twice as much fat as a hamburger. Select lean cuts of meat. Eat fish and poultry instead of red meats. Use low-fat or non-fat milk products. Cut down on hidden fat in fried foods, foods served with heavy sauces or gravies, pastries, and even chocolates. Reduce milk to 2% fat or less. You won't notice much difference in taste.

What about "diet pills"?

Persons who use diet pills may have some weight loss early but often find they are overweight again later. Because these pills have risks - some have been taken off the market in the last 10 years - your should talk to a doctor before you take them.

What about special diets?

  • Balanced low calorie diets are safe and good choices when combined with a method for participants to share problems and progress.
  • Low carbohydrate diets are popular because you lose water-weight fast but they are often difficult to continue.
  • A high carbohydrate diet is also difficult to continue
  • "Herbal diets" usually contain chromium, ephedra, guarana, and gensing.

Ingredients such as ephedra can cause problems when taken in high doses. Don't expect an "herbal diet" to be any better or safer than diet pills.

Exercise and Weight Control

The Table below shows you how many minutes you would have to do certain types of activities to "burn off" the calories from certain foods.

Food Activity Needed to Burn Off Extra Calories
Calories Walk Bike Run Rest
  (min) (min) (min) (min)
Bread and butter 78 15 10 4 60
Cake, 1/12, 2-layer 356 68 43 18 274
Carbonated beverage, 1 glass 106 20 13 5 82
Chicken, "TV" dinner 542 104 66 28 417
Cookie, chocolate chip 51 10 6 3 39
Doughnut 152 29 18 8 116
Ice cream, 1/6 qt. 193 37 24 10 148
Pancake with syrup 124 24 15 6 95
Pizza, cheese, 1/8 180 35 22 9 138
Hamburger 350 67 43 18 200
Roast beef with gravy 430 83 52 22 331
Spaghetti, 1 serving 396 76 48 20 305

On pound (or a half of kilogram) of fat is about 3500 calories or 10 hamburgers worth of calories (from the Table). To "burn off" 10 hamburgers of fat one has to run 3 hours or bike 36 hours! Many people think that exercise is a good way to control weight. As you can see, unless you have a lot of time to exercise and you are very young so you can keep exercising a long time, exercise is usually not the best way to lose weight. Watching what we eat is the best way to keep our weight where it needs to be.

We have tried to make the How's Your Health error-free. However, those involved in its preparation can not warrant that all of the information is accurate and complete. When you use How's Your Health as a guide for your health and medical care, be sure to discuss any questions about it with your doctor, nurse, or other health care worker.

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Last reviewed: January 2020 © 1997-2020 FNX Corporation and Trustees of Dartmouth College. All Rights Reserved.