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Judith J. Wurtman, PhD Headshot

Bored Into Weight Gain?

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Boredom is the unsung villain of weight gain. The upside of the airlines canceling food service on all but the longest flights is that it prevents travelers from eating something they don't want, don't like and often won't even remember. Fortunately, it is also difficult to avoid eating when one lands. There are no vending machines in baggage claim and nothing to eat in the taxi to your destination, and unpacking takes at least a half hour away from mindless consumption.

Boredom is rarely mentioned as a mood state as are anxiety, agitation, anger, depression and fatigue, all frequent triggers of excessive food intake. Being bored is not considered pathological, and health insurance won't pay for you to go to a therapist to learn how to deal with a boring life. And yet, many who struggle with losing weight and keeping it off understand that when boredom is no longer endurable, eating seems to be the easiest way to escape this mood.

The tendency to eat when bored probably started when we were very young. Our mothers fed us something to keep us from fretting and whining when stuck in a car seat, or waiting in a stroller for a conversation with someone to end. Eating to relieve boredom becomes a habit we take with us through adulthood and into old age. We turn to food as a diversion while studying for an exam, preparing a report, or playing another game of CandyLand. Many of the elderly residing in assisted living facilities welcome the afternoon and evening snacks as a break in the often long hours of tedium.

Being bored not only makes us eat more than we should, it also is a convenient excuse for not exercising. Physical activity routines are often repetitious: walking around the neighborhood or track, using the same piece of exercise equipment, going through the too-familiar routines of a yoga or dance class, keeping the weights constant on the muscle strengthening machines, or doing the same set of exercises with a personal trainer. The repetitive nature of a routine makes exercise a chore that we don't want to do. I bumped into someone I know whom I had not seen for several weeks, and when I asked her why she wasn't going to the spin class, she said that it just became too boring.

Even though boredom can be an insidious threat to a diet, boredom per se isn't such a bad thing. A friend of mine who is an anesthesiologist told me that being bored during a surgical procedure is greatly desired. "Either you are bored or you are dealing with a potential catastrophe," she told me. And being bored as a dieter or non-dieter means that you are also not dealing with catastrophes, stress, too much to do and too little time, hormonal or seasonal mood swings, an overflowing dishwasher, blizzards or tornados, financial meltdowns or a house full of relatives. The latter, in particular, is often an unspoken cause of stress that triggers the need for comfort food. Yet a mere pause to switch your mindset from boredom to serenity can save a dieter hundreds of extra calories.

Eating as a way of filling time can be replaced with a multitude of non-caloric activities. When I was a child and complained about being bored, my mother, alas, always had some task that I grumpily had to do. But as a grown-up, I realize that some of those tasks are good boredom breakers: cleaning off your desk, throwing away singleton socks or earrings, cleaning out the litter box, sorting through clothes that no longer fit or are wearable or sweeping out the garage. Today there are more contemporary diversions: backing up your data, updating your contact list, deleting old emails and text messages, sorting through your picture gallery or downloading music, books, lectures or movies. A client of mine whose work required hours on the phone would stop herself from munching while she was on hold by painting designs on her fingernails. She told me that the advantage of this strategy was that wet nail polish prevented her from eating.

Exercise with a goal and it stops being boring. Golf players know this because they are forever working to perfect their stance, swing, hold, or footwork, and go on to play tomorrow's game in the hope that it will be better than today's. The same is true of any workout, be it walking on a treadmill, swimming laps or building muscles. Running or walking the same two miles every day over the same route is mind-numbing. Increasing your speed, however, switching from running to walking, increasing your distance or changing your route suddenly makes the workout a challenge. Many people go from couch potato to athlete by simply deciding to train for a race or charity bike ride. The easiest way to set a goal is to try a new activity, especially one at which you are not very good. Finding yourself finally able to lift heavier weights, swim additional laps or hit a tennis ball takes away boredom and replaces it with exhilaration.

Exercise can also stop being boring when you add entertainment to the workout. The entertainment can be chatting with an exercise buddy, watching a movie (Bring your iPad to the gym), listening to an audio book or reading a paperback. Don't attempt War and Peace on the treadmill, but read the type of books that are light enough for the plane or the beach.

Boredom often gives us pause to our too busy and stressful lives, but if we can deal with boredom correctly, it might actually help us lose weight.

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

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