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Balanced: Eating Less, Exercising More Equal Weight Loss

Network - Spring 2009

By Mary Brolley

Two of three Americans are overweight or obese, putting them at higher risk for developing heart disease, type II diabetes and a host of cancers, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Should they get cancer, being overweight may worsen their prognosis or increase the likelihood of a recurrence.

Luckily, getting to a healthy weight may be simpler than is commonly thought.

“It’s about energy balance,” says Daniel Hughes, Ph.D., instructor in the Department of Behavioral Science at MD Anderson. “How much you take in compared to how active you are. My goal is to get more people more active for more of the time.”

He is a co-investigator on “Take Heart,” a pilot study researching behavioral interventions in cancer survivors with heart failure caused by treatment-induced cardiac toxicity.

This condition is an increasing concern, as more cancer survivors are living longer and, in some cases, suffering late effects of chemotherapy. Results of the study will benefit them, as well as the general public, Hughes says.

After getting a baseline measurement of each patient’s fitness level, researchers implement an individualized exercise program. Besides aerobic activity, Hughes encourages activities that build lean muscle.

“Approximately seventy percent of the calories you burn, you burn while at rest. With resistance training, patients can actually change their body composition and burn more calories at rest,” he says.

What you eat matters, too

“We suggest a plant-based diet — mostly fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains. And limiting sugars and fats,” says Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Behavioral Science.

She is the coauthor of a 2006 American Cancer Society report that concluded that obesity increases the risk of several cancers. “Prostate, breast, endometrial, to name a few,” she says. “Losing weight reduces that risk.”

Social support may help

Demark-Wahnefried is the principal investigator on a just-launched clinical trial exploring the effects of personalized diet and exercise advice combined with social support on women’s abilities to adopt and maintain a diet and exercise program.

She insists that eating well and exercising are not just about losing weight. “These interventions are designed to improve patients’ functionality and quality of life,” she says.
Hughes agrees. “The benefits of exercise are psychological as well as physical.”

Although most of the subjects in the exercise studies are not used to exercising, “After the session, most of them have that warm glow,” he says. “They say it wasn’t as hard as they thought it would be.”

Hughes advises patients to choose an activity they enjoy, take it easy at first, and look beyond the numbers on the scale. “Don’t weigh yourself too often,” he says. “A better gauge is how your clothes fit.”

He hopes that someday MD Anderson will have a diet and exercise assessment lab in each of its survivorship clinics to help the growing numbers of survivors live healthily and happily for many years.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center