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I'll be the first to tout the many benefits of exercise. It feels good to get the blood flowing, to break a sweat. And heavy breathing is not the exclusive domain of 80s prank callers, horror flicks and exhausted lovers. In other words huffing and puffing needn't occur solely between the sheets. There is nothing quite like feeling the breeze at your back and the wind beneath your feet - if like me you like to run barefoot; if not you should give it a try.

And the runner's high, or euphoric state resulting from long-distance running and other forms of cardiovascular exercise, is a reality. You've probably heard of endorphins, which are endogenous opioids, in other words morphine-like substances your body produces to blunt the pain you'd otherwise feel after running 10 miles through the hills or climbing as many flights of stairs two at a time with 5 lb weights trapped to each ankle. (Give it a try.) These endorphins also increase the release of dopamine, the reward chemical that also goes up when you snort coke and have sex with a hooker. Not that you'd do these things. But there are many who take actual opioids, especially prescription painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet. Too many.

The U.S. epidemic of lethal drug overdoses has reached crisis levels across the country. From the looks of things, pretty much all of New Mexico is high, not to mention most of Florida and the top half of California. They don't call us the sunshine state for nothin'. But the comedown from these drugs is a real, well, downer. More states are in the red, but they are not named and my knowledge of geography is pretty limited. See if you can find yours.

In an effort to reverse this epidemic, the FDA is requiring that U.S. labels on prescription painkillers like morphine and oxycodone warn users about the risks of addiction, overdose and death. Really these manufacturers should simply extol the virtues of the long run, which is more effective in treating pain, and not as addictive, though exercise is quite habit-forming. Just like smoking marijuana. And that's no non-sequitur. Because intense exercise also releases endocannabinoids. These marijuana-like substances act on the same receptors as endorphins and opioids. Which should interest you if getting high is something you like to do.

Like morphine, marijuana is prescribed for pain, but neither is as effective as a sustained act of self-exertion. I've taken both morphine and marijuana after a broken leg left me bed-ridden for months. The former made me woozy without taking away the hurt. Marijuana just gave me the munchies. It was only when I could work out again that I learned first-hand of exercising's potent analgesic effects. And here I thought I was logging miles on my bike to burn off all that chocolate. I wasn't, because it doesn't work that way. Unlike the marijuana you smoke, or eat in brownie form, the endocannabinoids your body produces make you feel good without making you hungry. And they have cool names like anandamide, which is derived from the Sanskrit term ananda, meaning bliss. So running really is like following your bliss, or chasing it. 

But more often than not what the recreational runner is chasing is another type of euphoria than the endorphin-produced rush which can't be beat. He's chasing his next meal, which is usually huge, or offering more calories than he just burned on that easy 3-miler. Which is why I do not include among the many benefits of working out weight loss, because it doesn't work that way.

In fact, Americans are more active than ever. Fifty-nine percent of the population exercises regularly, and yet the obesity prevalence has increased over the last 25 years from 25 percent (1 in 4) to 35 percent, or 1 in 3. Meaning if you're in a room filled with 100 people today, 10 more of them are huge than if you'd stood together in 1988. And there is less paisley, parachute pants, teased hair and acid-washed jeans. So some things have improved. 

We usually view overpopulation in terms of the actual number of people on the planet. But if you've ever sat next to a Kevin Smith twin in economy class, you know size matters, and not just the way we are taught to think. Making you want to scream: Quit hogging the arm rest or I'll start calling you a hog (and get lambasted for it). In Kevin's defense, he has lost a ton of weight, has great sex with his wife (or so he tweets) and I love his movies - at least the early ones. The later ones are too stoney for me. Because I don't smoke pot. I run. And unlike so many battlers of the bulge, not just to my next meal. Though I did. I'd often do a timed 5-miler at the track to pre-burn calories in anticipation of my next pizza. Mulberry's makes a great thin-crust, with no skimping on the sauce. I'd enjoy me some Mulberry's, followed by a pint of Ben & Jerry's and washed down with an equal measure of lager beer. The combined caloric-cost of this triple threat is around 1500. Running a 10k burns about 500. It doesn't add up. Or it adds up to flab.

It may seem astounding that in countries such as Japan and Norway where individuals are less active than Americans, obesity is a lot less prevalent. In fact 60 percent of the population in Japan is inactive, and yet only 5 percent of the Japanese are obese. Many factors contribute to what essentially is a uniquely American problem. I blame processed food. In Japan, sushi is a staple dish, and fish and rice are whole foods, no processing required. America is the land of muffins, bagels and energy bars, all of which practically deliver more calories per mouthful than an entire spicy tuna hand roll. And this is by design. The fiber is extracted from refined carbohydrates, making them true calorie bombs. Then there is the problem of portion sizes. Just 20 years ago, bagels had a three-inch diameter and delivered roughly 200 calories. Today, they are six inches across and deliver 500 calories As reports, hamburgers are 23 percent larger, Mexican entrees are 27 bigger and soda servings are 52 percent higher. People want more for their money and restaurants profit from increasing portions.

In fact, over 95 percent of America’s chain restaurant entrees fall outside the range of the USDA’s recommendations for fat, saturated fat and sodium per meal, according to an analysis from the RAND corporation. You can read the abstract or just visit your local Applebee's. Order the double-glazed baby back ribs if you're not convinced and you'll find that as the chain's profits swell, so does your pants size. I saw this at Easter, which this year was held at the ritzy Montage Hotel in Laguna Niguel. I watched as loved ones loaded their plates with marbled meat and shrimp in heavy sauces and go back more than once to choose from a sinful array of desserts shaped to look like toys.

The last time I loaded up on such dessert items as truffles and tarts and torts and glazed candies - at a similar function a dozen or so years ago - I ate until I nearly split my pants (name that tune) and spent the entire car ride home gasping for breath, my diaphragm unable to expand against all that food. I tossed and turned all night and threw my back out the next morning as I was getting out of bed. It took a week for me to be able to stand up straight again. Remembering this, I ate an apple, red pepper and 4 large carrots to fill myself up before the festivities got underway then stuck to the salad bar and fruit plate. And still I felt bloated. Must have been the dressing. Because even healthy options when served by strangers are drenched in hidden fat. I was waiting for my server to ask me if I wanted some leaves with my dressing. I can laugh about it now that I am no longer belching up rosemary.

Like me you are not immune to the harm inflicted by pseudo-foods just because you get your heart rate up for 30 or so minutes each day. As a recent study shows, gym rats overestimate their energy use by up to 400 percent, and after exercising eat more than twice as many calories as they burned. In other words if a few sets on the Nautilus machine costs you 200 calories, you're likely to think you burned 800 and feel okay about consuming over 500, equivalent to a sampler churro s'mores, if you're still eating at Applebee's. So don't. Instead, go with an apple. If you're not craving one, you may not be hungry enough.

My way of saying keep your high natural and free. Stay away from morphine and marijuana in favor of counterparts your body produces on its own. Fit into your favorite jeans, look great in your bikini and stay healthy like me by staying away from the buffet. Because I'm looking for good company and it's such a lovely day. So join me, whattya say?


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