Calories Out

Exercising six days a week—yes, you heard her—is the flywheel of weight loss, says researcher and competitive rower Jennifer Sacheck in a new book
Jennifer Sacheck rowing on river
Sacheck, a longtime rower, describes her book “Thinner This Year” as a guide to healthy living, regardless of whether someone needs to lose weight. Photo: Kathleen Dooher
October 3, 2013

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One look at Jennifer Sacheck, 5 feet, 10 inches tall, 140 pounds, no extra body fat, and you can easily convince yourself she must have it easy. Great genes and good fortune, you say; that’s how she stays so fit.

Then the alarm goes off, the 4:30 one that awakens Sacheck, N01, nearly every morning before she drives 17 miles from her home in Concord, Mass., to a boathouse in Cambridge, hauls her single scull onto the Charles River and starts to row while even the sun is trying to find enough energy to wake up.

“People might look at me and say, Oh Jen, you don’t have a problem with weight,” says Sacheck. “But I work so hard every day to make sure I get my physical activity in.” And soon after she hits the water, Sacheck starts thinking about what she is going to make for a healthy dinner.

Discipline and effort are what keep her fit. But here’s what Sacheck, an associate professor at the Friedman School’s John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention, also wants you to know: While there are no short cuts, it is possible and even pleasurable to eat and exercise your way out of a toxic lifestyle, pre-dawn wake-up calls optional.

That’s the message in a new book—Thinner This Year—Sacheck has co-written. With so many diet books on the market, Sacheck says what distinguishes Thinner This Year is that it focuses on balanced nutrition (how to eat rather than how to diet), insists that exercise must be an essential part of weight management and overall health, and steers clear of “myths and scams, nonsense and deception.”

“A lot of diet books sell one aspect or concept really heavily—don’t eat carbs, don’t eat wheat,” she says. Her book emphasizes the need to eat across food groups every day. “It’s so unwise to skip a food group. Each has its own benefits.”

Sacheck describes the book as a guide to healthy living, regardless of whether someone needs to lose weight. She cautions that while some people are clearly too heavy for their body type, others are “skinny fat”—their weight isn’t the problem, but their eating is not nutritious, a lack of exercise leaves them unfit, and their stored fat is inviting dysfunction and disease.

Sacheck wrote the book with Chris Crowley, a former Wall Street litigator turned wellness evangelist who has written two other books about health. Crowley shares his experiences trying to lose weight and live healthier, embracing irreverence and humor. Sacheck writes the science. “He beats the drum and sounds the trumpet; I provide you with the scientific road map,” she says.

“Most people truly do not understand what’s going on inside their bodies,” Sacheck says, whether it is how essential nutrients make the difference between function and dysfunction, what happens inside your muscles when they are moving or sedentary, how stored fat sends toxic signals that trigger disease, or that both nutrition and exercise must be included if you are to stay trim and healthy.

She says she initially was attracted to the Thinner This Year project because of the straightforward advice in Crowley’s first two books: “Exercise six days a week until the day you die—and then, as Chris says, you can take that day off. And don’t eat crap.”

To that end, the book recommends a minimum of 45 minutes of exercise six days a week. Sacheck recognizes that most people might consider that a daunting commitment. But the time can be divided (take a 20-minute brisk walk at lunchtime) or woven into errands (park a distance from the store entrance). The book also offers ideas for strength-training exercises that don’t require a gym.

“Exercise is the flywheel of weight loss, weight management and almost everything that’s good in life,” she writes. Exercise shrinks stored fat, reducing triggers of inflammation and disease, and grows lean muscle, boosting metabolism and burning calories.

Row to Success

Exercise—particularly rowing, which is her passion—brings Sacheck joy and stress release. The sport that Sacheck discovered when she moved to Florida during her sophomore year of high school has guided much of her life since, personally and professionally.

She has been a nationally recognized rower since those high school days. In her senior year, her crew team won a national title, and Sacheck was offered a full athletic scholarship to Syracuse, where she became crew team captain and an Academic All-American. She flirted with the Olympics, even was invited to training camps, but opted to accept a coaching job at UMass Amherst that included a tuition-free graduate school education.

It was there, while pursuing a master’s in exercise physiology, that she discovered the other half of her professional calling. She was coaching Division I women’s crew, and her student athletes had a pressing question: How can we lose some weight?

The young women were in shape, but they wanted to shed some pounds to become stronger competitors and to make sure they could remain in the lightweight rowing class, for which the weight limit is 130 pounds. Sacheck’s initial advice was, “Well, you can run more.” She knew a lot about fitness, after all, but when the students asked her what they should be eating, Sacheck realized she needed—and wanted—to learn as much as she could about nutrition.

“Low-fat diets were big back then,” Sacheck says, but she quickly learned to counsel her athletes to avoid choosing low-fat “dead food”—processed products with little nutritional value—and shift to nutrient-dense vegetables, protein and carbohydrates for the fuel they needed to prevent muscle stress and fatigue. A favorite recommendation was beans—nutritionally efficient and economically attractive. (“They were in college, after all,” she says.) Her team members lost weight and won their division championship.

Sacheck’s interest in healthy eating led her to the Friedman School. After earning her Ph.D. in nutrition in 2001, she completed a four-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, studying the mechanisms underlying muscle wasting from disease and disuse. In 2005 she returned to Tufts as a faculty member; she is also a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and on the faculty of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

At the moment, she is leading a National Institutes of Health-funded clinical trial—dubbed “The Daily D Study”—to determine whether the current recommendation of 600 IU per day of vitamin D adequately raises levels in children who are deficient, particularly those who are overweight or obese. The study also aims to determine whether vitamin D levels have a significant impact on markers that measure risk for cardiovascular disease.

Food for Life

Sacheck’s life these days focuses on nutrition, but she didn’t think about such things growing up.

She spent most of her childhood in the Midwest with a diet that included a lot of meat, potatoes and vegetables such as corn, green beans and iceberg lettuce; she even had dessert on most days. The saving grace was that the food was always homemade, she says. “We were not eating processed packaged foods with hidden fats, added sugars and added caloric value.”

Sacheck says that foods rich in nutrients, protein and fiber burn up to 30 percent of their calories just through the processes of digesting and metabolizing, and they have built-in appetite suppressors, none of which is true of white flour and sugar. In fact, junk foods—highly processed foods with lots of sugar and fat—rewire the brain and create addictive urges, she says.

Sacheck, who has two children ages 4 and 6, now follows what her book recommends: a daily balance of 50 percent vegetables and fruit, 20 percent whole grains, 20 percent lean protein, and 10 percent low-fat dairy and healthy fats.

She does have a firm rule: Do not drink your calories. Drinking “doesn’t register with your brain like chewing your calories,” she says. “Drink a smoothie or a sports drink, and you can drink 200 to 500 calories in a heartbeat, but the brain doesn’t recognize you’ve eaten food, and you’re soon hungry.”

Sacheck exercises for health and training, as she continues to compete at high levels. She has competed 17 times in the Head of the Charles Regatta, Boston’s annual two-day rowing event that attracts 9,000 competitors from around the world. Her two proudest finishes as a master’s single came in 2005 (when she was pregnant) and 2006 (four months after giving birth), both times finishing in second place, missing first by just seconds. Annually, she competes in a grueling road race—7.6 uphill miles to the top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast.

While Sacheck excels, she’s never considered herself perfect. She says she put on an extra 15 pounds in college when she and her now-husband often met for pizza and beer. And even today she has a “go-to processed, packaged, terrible food” when she is feeling stressed. “Do you know how many Cheez-Its I ate writing this book?” she asks.

But each new day she sets the alarm and gets back on track.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Tufts Nutrition magazine.

Linda Hall is a freelance writer in Hopkinton, Mass. 

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