Here's a question as we head into New Year's resolution time: What's the best thing to commit to in order to lose weight? Did you answer, "Hitting the gym"? If so, you're hardly alone -- so many people are centering their plans for the new year around exercise. But there are key components to weight loss that you can't take care of at the gym; people tend to ignore these, because they're not, like exercise, something active you go out and do. These are passive weight loss strategies yet powerful -- three things you can change in your life that will benefit your weight. And none of them involves a gym.
Why am I so down on exercise? Well, I'm not. Exercise is only one component of any weight loss strategy. But the numbers tell the tale -- we are working out more than ever, and yet we keep getting fatter. In fact, the Minnesota Heart Survey found in 1980 that 47 percent of Americans regularly exercised; in 2000 it was 57 percent. That's great, right? But in 1980, a mere 15 percent of Americans were obese -- versus 30 percent, fully twice that, in 2000. So what's going on?
Let's look at what else has gone up in the same time period as our exercise rates: stress. In our focus on calories in/calories out, we've tended not to notice the connection of stress to weight gain and the link between stress hormones like cortisol and fat retention (1,4). The reality of modern life is that it is going to be pressured and harried. That's simply the reality for most of us.
But within that framework, we can make choices that will minimize stress, beat back cortisol and other stress hormones, and help maintain a healthy weight.
1. Breathing. This may seem obvious -- after all, you have to breathe no matter what, right? But few of us breathe deeply or consciously. Think about it -- when was the last time you took a long, slow, deep breath, and equally slowly let it out again? Deep breaths of that kind take you out of your immersion in momentary stress, they oxygenate your brain and tissues, and they help to reduce stress hormones. Take breathing breaks throughout the day, or, better yet, pair those breaks with a quiet walk to disassociate from the stress. Just a couple of minutes of walking, a few long, deep breaths, and you will start to see the results in your body.
2. Sleep. Adequate sleep is key to stress management (2) -- tired people can be easily irritated and can make make poorer decisions. But sleep also plays into overeating, because sleep deprivation can raise levels of ghrelin, a hormone that causes the sensation of hunger. So if you don't get enough sleep (at least six hours), you may find yourself unusually hungry the next day -- and sooner or later you may break down and snack on the most immediate source of satiation: sugar. Remain sleep deprived over time, and those calories can really add up -- as can your stress levels.
3. Eating. Look, it doesn't really matter how organic and preservative-free your food is if you eat it in a hurry, while distracted by something else (say, your laptop). When you eat without being aware of it your brain gets cheated of the experience of eating and can fail to send the signals of satiation to your body (3). When you eat too quickly, you never get the feeling of fullness while eating, as this takes about 20 minutes, and so eat far more than you would otherwise. Either way, you get hungry very soon, and in your distracted state, are liable to idly grab a handful of cookies to take care of the problem.
If you want to make a change in your weight this year -- assuming you are already trying to maintain a basically healthy diet -- think less about the calories burned at the gym and more about these three passive techniques: breathe deep, sleep long, eat slow. Enjoy.
1. Block, J. P. et al. (2009). Psychosocial stress and change in weight among US adults.
American Journal of Epidemiology, 170, 181‒192.
2. Coe, S. (2011). Can a poor night's sleep stop you from losing body fat? Nutrition
Bulletin, 36, 99‒101.
3. Rozin, P. et al. (2003). The ecology of eating: smaller portion sizes in France than in the United States help explain the French paradox. Psychological Science, 14(5), 450-454.
4. Vicennati, V. et al. (2011). Cortisol, energy intake, and food frequency in overweight/obese women. Nutrition, 27, 677‒680.