“Is that me?” Huckabee asked his wife.
No question about it: At nearly 300 pounds and recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the Arkansas governor was a heart attack waiting to happen.
So he decided he had to quit digging his grave with a knife and fork and do something about it: a drastic, physician-supervised diet, followed by a more reasonable 1,600 calories a day, followed by an exercise regimen.
Now 110 pounds lighter, Huckabee is a marathoner who pushes health programs for school kids and does what he can to change the way Arkansas exercises and eats. Which isn't easy.
“In the South, we fry everything,” he said as he accepted the IDEA Fitness Inspiration award at the group's annual World Fitness Convention, which attracts 5,000 fitness professionals from around the world. “If we could find a way to fry lettuce, we'd do it.”
But is skipping the skillet the fastest way to fitness success? If exercise and diet were to duke it out in the battle for weight reduction, which one would win through losing?
If you said diet, you're right - in the short term. If you said exercise, you're right - for the long haul. If you said both, you're right - when it comes to living as long and healthy a life as possible.
If you said neither, you're just like the millions of other disgusted, disgruntled, discouraged dieters who have tried repeatedly and futilely to drop pounds.
Part of the problem: The chubby masses have unrealistic weight-loss goals, says Kara Gallagher, assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Louisville. Everybody might like to be Huckabee, but it just doesn't happen.
One study showed that people considered obese dream of being 40 percent lighter. They'd be happy with a 30 percent weight loss and would consider a 25 percent loss acceptable but would be disappointed with a mere 17 percent reduction.
If you weigh in at 300, that disappointing loss would still be 51 pounds.
“What does this ultimately lead to? Failure,” Gallagher told a group of fitness pros at the convention, held in July in Las Vegas.
Worlds collided there. The casino, which separated the hotel area from the convention, was a seething pit of rampant corpulence shrouded by the smoke from a thousand cigarettes - in short, everything wrong with American health reduced to a single tacky room.
A dozen times a day, the conventioneers - assorted ridiculously fit individuals - tried to power-walk, jog or flat-out sprint across the casino floor without inhaling.
The people who spend hours feeding quarters into the slots with one hand and lighting up or shoveling it in with the other were actually inspirational, because it reminded everyone why they love their work and why they'll always have lots of clients.
I don't gamble, but I'd bet a big pile of money that 95 percent of those slot jockeys have tried and given up on dozens of diets.
Here's a possible reason:
Let's say you're 30 pounds overweight. You have one month until the wedding/reunion/Miss Hawaiian Tropic competition, and you want to lose it all.
The 2 a.m. infomercial says it can be done. But can it, really?
It boils down to numbers: 3,500 calories equal 1 pound of body fat.
Let's say you burn 2,000 calories a day just by taking up space on the couch, a reasonable assumption for a 180-pound person. That means you'd have to burn 1,500 more calories a day to lose a pound, which would take two hours of hauling bricks or 2 1/2 hours of competitive badminton or three hours of aerobics or 3 1/2 hours of shooting hoops or five hours of milking cows or seven hours of croquet.
Oh, I almost forgot: You can't eat anything, either.
You can see the problem here.
There's another problem: The lighter you get, the fewer calories you burn just to maintain your existence. That means that if you wanted to keep losing weight, you'd have to exercise even more - and still not eat anything. Pretty much the worst of both worlds.
There are certain people, however, who don't need to diet to lose weight.
“Exercise alone works well - for men,” Gallagher says.
In a 12-week study with obese men, cutting 500 calories a day from their diets produced the same results as burning 500 calories by walking on a treadmill, with one important difference: The exercise-only group lost a higher percentage of body fat and retained more lean muscle mass.
For women, diet is critical. A University of Minnesota study found that even big increases in exercise alone didn't change things for them; they had to cut out five to 10 weekly servings of high-fat foods to make a difference.
A study found that a diet-only group quickly dropped an average of 15 pounds, while an exercise-only group lost only six. But after two years, the diet-only group actually weighed more than when they'd started, while the exercise-only group had maintained a 5-pound loss.
The people who combined exercise and diet came out on top, with an initial 20-pound loss and a two-year average of 6 pounds less.
“Exercise is critical to keep the weight off,” Gallagher says.
The 4,500 members of the National Weight Control Registry have all lost at least 30 pounds that they've kept off for at least a year; the average is a 60-pound loss maintained for five years.
About half of them lost weight on their own, with no help or program. Their most frequent form of exercise: walking.
And like Huckabee, nearly 80 percent say their weight loss was precipitated by that “aha!” moment: the discovery of an inability to walk around the block or up the stairs without stopping, a diagnosis of some obesity-related disease or the death of a loved one from some preventable cause.
But if you asked any of those fitness pros in Las Vegas, they all would have said the same thing: Weight loss isn't the point; good health is. Live a healthy lifestyle and your weight will eventually be at a healthy place.