Trust for America's Health, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, released a report last week that states' populations are getting fatter. Yet somewhere, subconsciously, people know that weight management is simple arithmetic: Weight loss happens when you eat fewer calories than you burn.
But simple hardly describes the eccentric self-made rules and mantras that nutritionists, trainers and doctors hear about from their clients. Even reasonable people who wouldn't buy into magic-bullet weight loss pills can fall into total fitness flops.
To help others steer clear of the next plan that crosses the line between creative to ill-conceived, some of the best minds in nutrition have shared real-world fitness plan failures.
Correspondence Gym Courses
Above all, know thyself. According to Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian and an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, an unrealistic view of your personality can make you susceptible to fitness failure.
"People get into ill-conceived fitness plans because they hate it," Ayoob said. "They hate it because it's drudgery, and if they liked it, they wouldn't be needing the plan."
Take, for example, correspondence gym courses. Brigham Young University offers a variety of mail-order gym courses that include correspondence jogging, bowling and swimming. Students can receive gym credit for mailing in written quizzes and honor system exercise time logs.
"That can be useful, but you have to know yourself," Ayoob said. "It's easy to slack off, it's easy to fake that."
As with many instructional videos, unless you're a home-schooled teen, or honestly don't know about running techniques, taking a correspondence gym course might be a fitness flop for the very reason the gym course seems appealing.
"If you're a self-starter, cool," Ayoob said. "But for many people, if they were self-starters, they would already be jogging."
Aside from being dishonest about motivation or interest in an exercise, Ayoob said some of the most common personal fitness flops are diet books with seductive reasoning.
"My favorite is that caveman diet book.," Ayoob said. "You eat foods only the caveman would eat."
Caveman Diet and Orange Food
The caveman diet, also known as the Paleolithic diet, is a return to what people ate 10,000 years ago before agriculture. The diet is premised on the idea that the human body is better adapted to an ancient diet and less adapted to the relatively new introductions like legumes, grains, dairy, oils, salts and other refined foods.
But Ayoob is not convinced. "On one hand there's not much anything that is packaged, but it includes a lot of meat -- you have to eat what you catch, right?" Ayoob said.
"Do they know that the caveman died at age 30? You didn't need to worry about cholesterol or osteoporosis when you're going to die at that age," he said.
Dietitians and doctors believe most single-premise diets like the caveman diet may be too simple for people who want to last until retirement.
Registered dietitian and diet book author Cynthia Sass has seen clients in the past 15 years with some odd single-premise diet ideas. For example, the one-color diet idea.
"It's only eating foods that are the same color -- that's popular," said Sass, who is also a co-author of the "Flat Belly Diet" book.
"Pick a color, basically, and only eat the food that's that color."
Sass remembered orange is a common color, because it includes a lot of foods: carrots, sweet potatoes, mangos, oranges, papaya. "People think, 'Ooh, I'm only eating all these healthy foods, but balance is essential for getting most bang for your buck, foodwise.
"Orange wouldn't be a bad color to pick. However, I can't think of any protein foods that are orange," said Sass, adding that while beta carotene in the orange food is healthy, people also need to eat fat to absorb it.
Another short-term diet Sass has seen people try before weddings or high school reunions is the one-item diet. The only rule is to eat the one dish, for example chicken soup, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The premise is if you eat only one food, you'll be so sick of it that you won't overeat.
"This one woman picked soft pretzels," Sass said. "I think that woman picked those because she had a fat phobia and she knew they were low-fat."
As with the one-color diet, the one-food diet can have some unforeseen pitfalls. Without enough nutrients, Sass believes people will actually want to rest rather than go out and burn calories. "If you are only eating soup or pretzels -- you're just going to feel like crashing on the couch or going to bed early."
Sass has seen worse diets than the depressing life of soft pretzels. Sass really hates the ideas that play on people's shame -- the so-called bikini and mirror diets.
Bikini or Mirror Diet
Both the bikini and the mirror diets aim to motivate, or shame, people into eating right by making them self-conscious. Dieters can eat what they like, but they must eat it in front of a mirror or while wearing a bikini.
"I would never recommend that somebody do something that's trying to shame them and make them feel bad," Sass said. "You're creating more negative emotions that may make you want to binge eat."
If mirror dieting is on the mental extreme of ill-conceived fitness ideas, Sass said the physical extreme would be the burn-it-all regimen.
"It's trying to burn the same number of calories that you eat during exercise," said Sass, adding that the math is not on the burn-it-all fitness regimen's side. Because most people burn 500 calories per hour of aerobic exercise, someone would have to exercise for three hours to burn the recommended 1,500 calories.
Like extreme diets, many nutritionists and doctors said lofty exercise hopes are actually a common source of fitness folly.
Not a Race: Olympic Team or Bust
"Many of my patients try going from sedentary to extreme exertion to lose weight fast," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine and a medical contributor to ABC News.
"It generally results in injury and rapid burn-out, and no sustainable benefit," Katz said.
Ayoob also sees this as a problem, but more often, he calls it the weekend-warrior syndrome.
"This is not a race," Ayoob said. "Especially with the Olympics, stop trying to be Michael Phelps. I'd much rather see someone go on a 1-mile jog every day, than a 7-mile jog once a week."
Ayoob has a common recommendation for the all-or-nothing busy athlete: Do a pushup a day, and at the end of each week, add another pushup. "In six months, you'll be doing 26 a day and you'll be past where you need to be," he said.
Unfortunately, impatience abounds, and even proven activities that help you lose weight can quickly disappoint dieters.
Wiring Your Mouth Shut
A disturbing icon of the impatient, extreme dieter is the procedure to wire the teeth shut so only liquids can get through. While temporary, forcible fasting like this might get results of several pounds in a week, Ayoob warns that people don't often lose fat.
"Whenever you see 'Lose 10 pounds in three days,' can you do it? Yes. Will it be fat? No," Ayoob said.
Instead, most people end up losing water weight, and carbohydrate energy stores known as glycogen. To safely lose fat, and lose it permanently, Ayoob recommends a rate of 2 pounds per week.
"When it comes to weight loss, slow and steady is really going to win the race," Ayoob said.
That's why Dr. Misty Suri at Ochsner Health System Sports Medicine in Jefferson, La., believes patients need to have a long-term, permanent commitment similar to quitting smoking.
"In order to lose weight, people have to want to do it," Suri said. "No amount of 'stop-smoking aid' will work, unless the person is totally committed to it. The same goes for trying to lose weight."
Hence, the final word of warning from the experts: Be suspect if it's not a little difficult, especially if all you have to do is breathe.
Breathing to Lose Weight
Some bad fitness ideas aim to change your mental outlook, others aim to drop your waist, but Ayoob is most wary of any diet idea, including breathing, that is marketed to change your metabolism.
In the mid-'90s, diet books turned to a mishmash of yoga and other meditative breathing exercises as a way to boost your metabolism. The premise was much the same as fanning the flames of a fire: The more oxygen in the body, the more calories it would burn.
"Anything that jump-starts metabolism, that's a red flag," said Ayoob, adding that for most people only exercise can boost metabolism.
But even with exercise plans, Katz said some fitness ideas that incorporate exercise are too easy to be true -- such as yoga to lose weight, or leisurely walking to lose weight.
"There is a book out now on the 'no cardio' diet, advocating against aerobic exercise," Katz said.
The book, "The Cardio-Free Diet" by Jim Karas, expands on the premise that most people don't like to do aerobic exercise and that alternative exercises exist to lose weight.
"But this is a very regrettable position," Katz said. "While it's true that aerobic exercise does not ensure weight loss, it is very important to health -- which this gimmick seems to overlook entirely.
"Gimmicks prevail because we are looking for a way out," Katz said. "There is a native, animal vitality we all have -- and most of us squander. But life is better when it is cultivated -- healthy, vital people have more fun."