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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 23, 2001

Try & tri-again
Weight loss can be elusive even for active people

Editor's note: Writers Vicki Viotti, a novice athlete, and Katherine Nichols, an experienced competitor, are training together for the Sept. 9 Niketown Na Wahine Sprint Triathlon. In this weekly column, they share insights from experts, other athletes and their own training regimen, aimed at helping readers push their own boundaries — physically and mentally.

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Gerry DeBenedetti runs, race walks, lifts weights, swims and paddles. It adds up to being "fit," but "slenderness" remains difficult to achieve.

Photos by Kyle Sackowski • The Honolulu Advertiser

The scale weighs on you as much as you weigh on it. As anyone who's ever dealt with a weight problem knows, the numbers that pop up when you step on that little platform can become an obsession.

Ask Gerry DeBenedetti, who is fit for a woman of any age, certainly for one who's 62. Swims. Race walks for an hour three times a week. Lifts weights twice a week. Paddles four miles with the Outrigger Canoe Club Golden Masters once a week. Regularly indulges a fondness for hiking, which on Labor Day weekend will take her on a 10-mile trek at Haleakala on Maui.

Take one of her twice-weekly swims with her, a quarter-mile out to the sock fluttering from the buoy off the canoe club and back. With wind and current, it's not as easy as it looks.

"This is a better workout than you'll get in a pool," the Kaimuki organizational consultant said as she emerged from the surf.

But in the past dozen years or so, DeBenedetti, a naturally curvy woman, has put on a little more weight than she would like, and she has learned that exercise is not the magic bullet people assume it is.

Despite her active schedule, she said, "There's no weight loss. There is not an ounce — not an ounce."

She confesses to a reporter what the scale reports, but then she intones: "If you put in any mention of what I weigh, I will die, and you will die with me."

The reporter empathizes, having failed to lose the last five pounds toward her goal weight and having shared the erroneous assumption that physical training, for a triathlon or whatever, would erase those excess pounds automatically, magically shattering the obsession with the scale.

It hasn't. It doesn't. Having a fitness focus can serve as a distraction from food, and it's truly rewarding to extend the boundaries of your physical capabilities. Everyone tells you that you look good and healthy, and that's just great.

Then you step on the scale, and man, it still stings.

This isn't rocket science, so why does this seem so hard? Any expert will tell you: It's a matter of consuming fewer calories than you expend, a theoretically simple issue that in practice is complicated by differences in genetics and metabolism. But that's a big complication, and too many people are troubled by an arbitrary weight goal that may not be suited to them, said Kwock Ho, a retired exercise physiologist now working on a three-year study aimed at producing an exercise program to reduce childhood obesity here.

Better than trying to fit yourself into some insurance company's height-weight chart, said Ho, is to reflect honestly on what weight allows you to perform best.

"The problem is what is the ideal body weight for an individual? It looks like we each have an optimal body weight where you feel good about your body. The weight table is very, very general. The deviation is so big there that five or six pounds would not cause any problems. But socially, you feel different. This is more a social-psychological factor than physiological."

Benedetti's challenge is finding the right balance between what she weighs and how she feels. Should she diet to the point of hunger headaches or significant loss of her quality of life? She reflected on a recent meal consumed while dining out with friends. Healthy stuff: fish, rice and veggies and, OK, a couple of drinks that she normally doesn't have.

"I know that what you should do is give up the two drinks and half the rice," she said. "But then I think, 'But why?' ... I'm not sure how miserable I'm supposed to be."

This ambivalence can assail even the leanest athlete, since weight ideals are so often set by factors beyond one's control. Kelly Vitousek, a University of Hawai'i psychology professor and eating disorders researcher, said that's why the trick is to stay fixed less on the finish line than on the eating and exercise habits that will get you there.

"Our emphasis is to focus on doing the right thing rather than picking a number as a goal," Vitousek said.

DeBenedetti swims twice a week off the Outrigger Canoe Club, where she has been a longtime member.
Food is bound up with home and happiness for DeBenedetti, a widowed mother who loves to serve elaborate, home-cooked meals when her grown kids visit. It's bound up with her Italian American heritage.

Being rail thin is not her goal. But having been a swimmer since college, and a runner and walker for a quarter century, she hangs out with athletes, and she's feeling self-conscious.

"Here I am: 'Chunk-o,' " she said with a sigh. "It looks like they're the athletes and I'm some big sloth that they have to drag around in the boat. These people are all thinner than I am, and that makes me feel bad."

At the same time, she realizes this stress is largely self-inflicted, a societal pressure that afflicts women more acutely.

"Am I going to win the marathon?" she asks herself rhetorically. "No. Am I going to be a concert pianist? No. Am I going to weigh 120 pounds?"

Pause. "Why does that one stick?"

We'd retreated to the Outrigger lanai for iced tea. Mary Seman, a visiting doctoral candidate from San Francisco, overheard our conversation, waved a 1986 book, "Women's Ways of Knowing," that she said would address every feminist implication, and added her two cents.

"As we age," Seman said, "we have to cut our calorie intake because we need less food."

DeBenedetti frowned.

"We don't like to hear that," she said. "We're the Italian love goddesses!"

A waitress also had been eavesdropping, heard remarks about curvaceous figures and approached.

"Speaking of hips," she said, "don't forget the pupu bar!"

"What is it today?" DeBenedetti asked.

"Potato skins," was the answer.

"Oh," she said, "I like that."

And so the Italian love goddesses indulged. But in a nod to weight control, DeBenedetti declared it not a snack but her evening meal.