The Cult of Exercise

We have a cultural obsession with exercise. Somehow, we have come to view exercise as the silver bullet for obesity. The marketing of exercise programs sends a subtle but powerful message that everyone who is obese is simply lazy and unmotivated. That message is echoed everywhere, including the doctor’s office. Every year gym memberships surge as a herd of pudgy people resolve to start exercising. That resolve usually doesn’t last long, and many of them end up quitting. Why? Because for many, exercise is simply not very fun. Not only is it not very fun, it is not super effective for weight loss to begin with. This is one of the powerful forces working against people who are trying to lose weight. The entire exercise field is riddled with landmines. Among the largest is this perception of exercise.

running-runner-long-distance-fitness-40751The biggest issue with exercise is that we think it as more effective than it is. To put it simply, unless you are working out or exerting energy all day long, it is not an effective weight loss option. For those of us who aren’t athletes, construction workers, or otherwise, this kind of thinking leads to negative outcomes that begin working symbiotically to sideline our progress. If you consume a single candy bar, you are going to have to run for over an hour to burn off those calories. Most of the calories you burn in a day are set. Those are the calories it takes to keep your basic bodily functions running. Only a fraction of the total calories burned in a day is going to be affected by exercise. From my experience, penciling in an hours-worth of exercise can be extremely difficult. Maintaining that hours-worth of exercise over a long period of time is even more challenging, and you must maintain that dedication over a long period of time to see results. So not only are we putting our weightloss eggs in the wrong basket, we are also setting ourselves up for a psychological state that is negative. In no way am I trying to say that exercise is not important. It is vitally important, just not for the reasons you would think.

Just as food should be enjoyable, so should exercise. Just as fostering a taste for healthy food is difficult, so is fostering a taste for exercise. Just as looking at food as simply calories-in, calories-out, can be negative, so is looking at exercise as a way to burn excess calories. Losing weight takes time and the only way you are going to keep at it long enough to see results, is to enjoy it. Relying on exercise to burn excess calories can fail to address overconsumption on the front end and often leads to overconsumption on the back end. It is a mechanical way to look at exercise that is all wrong.

The best exercise is the one that you will do, every day, for your entire life. For people who are morbidly obese (as I was), walking is about the only form of exercise you can engage in without it being painful and embarrassing.  My advice for exercise is to find the kind that is most enjoyable to you and engage in it every day without fail. For me, it started with nature walks and turned into hiking as my abilities increased. Focus on limiting your caloric intake by drastically increasing your fruit and vegetable intake (and finding ways to prepare them deliciously) which will effectively crowd calorie dense foods out of your diet. Find ways to make exercise a response to negative environmental factors instead of food. Stressed? Take a walk. Angry? Take a walk. Hungry? Take a walk before you eat. Happy? Take a walk. This is a part of Hedonic Treadmill concept of diversifying pleasure sources. Once you condition yourself to exercise as an enjoyable proposition, you can lean on it as a source for happiness.

The way we view exercise is negative, in large part, because of the expectations of what exercise is supposed to look like. This is dictated to us by advertisements, tv shows, and the numerous exercise communities that vie for our patronage. In most cases, you are seeing fit people doing fit-people things. When this is the standard you are reaching for, the focus shifts from your abilities to aspirations of their abilities. One of the most profound understandings I stumbled upon was the fact that I was carrying the equivalent of a 200 plus pound weight around with me at all times. Strap a 200-pound weight on any athlete and see how fast they can waddle around. If you are viewing exercise success as the ability to run a five-minute mile with a 200-pound weight on, then the problem might be self-inflicted. Nobody can do that. If you are obese, you have a built-in advantage: resistance. Every move you make is a weighted exercise. When we aspire to insane feats of athleticism, which take insane dedication to training over long periods of time, no wonder we aren’t having a good time! When we beat ourselves up because we don’t have athletic bodies that can do athletic things, it turns negative very quickly, leading to a loss of motivation and failure to engage over the long-haul.

The main benefit you are going to see from exercise is in your mood and general well-being. It gives you a general feeling of wellness that, if fostered by good diet and sleep, turns into a positive feedback loop. When you exercise, there is a cascade of positive hormonal effects. You achieve those effects by pushing yourself to reasonable levels. Like I said, those athletes aren’t weighed down so they must go to greater lengths to push their bodies to that pleasurable state. This is easier to see once you stick to exercise for a while. I gradually went from agonizing nature walks to running up a mountain. Both required roughly the same level of physical exertion relative to body composition. Focus on what you can do, not others. Focus on challenging yourself instead of aspiring to the challenges of others. Find ways to make it fun. I enjoy alone time, whether active or not. I like to engage in a lot of sedentary activities. Find ways to integrate them. If you like reading books, get an Audible account and walk, run, bike, hike, skate, or otherwise. There are many new technological tools to help with integration. Turn exercise into the thing you do to escape for a while. That is what most athletes are doing. If the thing you do to unwind after a hard day is, say, drinking a couple beers, you are doing the same thing that athletes are doing. You’re altering your mental state. They are not exercising because they enjoy pain. It’s called runners “high” for a reason. Approach exercise as something pleasurable and work within your boundaries.

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