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Published: Fall, 2004; Vol 6, Num 4

 

Breaking the Cycle:

Winter Inactivity Fuels Weight Gain

Winter is setting in across the United States and Canada, and, in most places, that means less work and more inactivity for Laborers.

Alternate description

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman
Armand E. Sabitoni

"This is the time of year when it takes a special effort to stay in shape," says Angela Brennan, Associate Director of the LHSFNA Health Promotion Division. "It doesn't help that the onset of the off-season in construction coincides with the holidays and all the rich food and desserts that come along with that. If you're not careful, you can gain ten pounds before you know it.

"There's two aspects to the problem - diet and activity," Brennan continues. "Food is the source of the energy - the calories - that we need to live and work. When we're active, we burn calories. We need to have the right balance between the two. If we take in more calories than we burn, we gain weight."

Buring Off Those Calories

One small chocolate chip cookie (50 calories) is equivalent to walking briskly for ten minutes.

One jelly donut (300 calories) will take 20 minutes of walking at a moderate pace (20 minutes per mile) to burn.

A double patty cheeseburger, extra large fries and a 24-oz soda (1500 calories) are equal to running two and a half hours at a ten minute/mile pace.

Particularly for Laborers and their families, that balance is hard to achieve and maintain.

During the construction season, Laborers are very active and must consume a lot of calories to keep up their energy levels. However, the eating patterns established for the work season probably contain too many calories for the inactive off-season.

Thus, during the winter, Laborers need to build more physical exercise into their lives while, also, reducing their caloric consumption.

The problem is different for their family members. Data show that most jobs in North America are nowhere near as active as construction work. Non-construction household members, even those who work, probably have a lower and more even level of year-round activity than Laborers. This lower level of activity, most likely, is not enough to burn off all the calories that are put on the table during the construction season. The same is probably true for the children of Laborers as well.

Thus, non-construction household members need to watch their caloric intake during the construction season and avoid "keeping up" with their partners. They need to find ways to build more physical exercise into their lives year-round while finding ways to ensure that their children also are active and remain fit.

"We stress the importance of staying active," says Brennan, "because dieting without exercise almost never works. Most people can go on a diet for a few weeks or months and lose some weight - even a significant amount. But, if they haven't changed anything else in their lifestyle, they'll gradually return to their old eating habits and regain the weight.

"If they build in exercise, however, they may be able to lose weight with only moderate change in their diet," she continues. "Also, they will become more fit, have more energy and feel more self-confident. These positive feedback mechanisms are the rewards of more exercise, and they help most people to stick with it. After a while, exercise becomes part of a new lifestyle."

The level of physical activity necessary to maintain healthy weight varies from individual to individual, but it is not huge and, often, can work easily into a typical daily routine. "Walking at a brisk pace for 30 minutes each day will make a big difference to someone who is otherwise inactive," says Brennan. "Consider parking a distance from work and walking the rest of the way. If you ride a bus, get off a stop or two early and walk. If you ride an elevator up to your office, switch to climbing the stairs. Look at your routines, and find ways to add a bit more physical challenge. Weigh yourself and monitor your progress. After a couple months you'll see some results."

On the diet front, little adjustments can also make a big difference. "If all you do is dump the soda habit, you'll see results," says Brennan. "Replace it with water and some real juice. And cut back on portion size and fried food. Work in a few more vegetables and cut down on some carbohydrates such as potatoes and pasta."

For those that are seriously overweight, a more rigorous plan for diet and exercise may be needed. Brennan warns, "If you're considering serious exercise after some years of inactivity, be sure to consult your doctor before starting. In general, if you're not sure how or where to begin a weight loss program, ask your doctor for guidance."

"Some people have fallen into the habit of overeating, and it's hurting us all," says LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman and LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer Armand E. Sabitoni, looking at the big picture. "More individuals suffer with the ill effects of being overweight while the health care system is burdened with the mounting costs of weight-related illness and disease."

Sabitoni cites data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "In the last 25 years, the number of obese Americans has doubled," he says. "Incredibly, the problem is more obvious among children. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children from six to 19 years who are overweight tripled to 15 percent. Parents are setting a poor example, and, sadly, their kids are following it."

The patterns of holiday eating and winter inactivity are well-established, and, for most people, this is when they gain the most weight. Despite some loss in the spring and summer, there's usually a small net gain, year after year. This poundage is piling up on individuals and the health care system. Yet, says Sabitoni, "This is something we can each control. I'm not saying it's easy, but by adjusting our lifestyles, it can be accomplished. We can do ourselves, our families and our funds a favor, and we'll be well rewarded over the course of our lives."

More information about maintaining health weight is available at www.lhsfna.org. Also, the LHSFNA has a video, Spring Training, that draws on the parallels in the working lives of Laborers and baseball players to promote off-season fitness. For more information contact the Health Promotion Division.

[Steve Clark]