As you can see from the chart on the left, only those Adventists who eliminated all animal foods from their diets attained a normal BMI, on average. And just in case you thought that obesity was a problem only of seat belt extenders on airplanes and more X’s on our clothing labels, you can see the stark correlation between obesity and diabetes.
Case studies: Darcy, Sue, Doron, Deanna Longo, Sean Sutton
Using Movement to Combat Obesity
We’ve already seen that exercise isn’t a sufficient solution to weight loss, despite the logic of increasing our “calories out” to change our metabolic equilibrium. So why come back to it here, in the “What Works” section?
Because Movement is critical to success in overcoming obesity. Just not in the ways you might think. Let’s look at the real connection between physical activity and weight loss.
Physical activity can help with weight loss in six distinct and inter-related ways.
First, movement confers physiological benefits. When we exercise, our bodies produce a neurotransmitter called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is essentially our own “Limitless” pill. In other words, BDNF makes us smarter.
Why would our bodies couple movement with cognitive ability? Because the brain is a giant energy hog. At 4% of our weight, it gobbles about 25% of our calories. When we can rest the brain to conserve energy, we will.
When we’re laying around the campfire, we don’t need to be that sharp. We’re safe, we’re warm, and everything’s groovy. Brain, take ten.
When we’re moving, things are unpredictable. We’re looking for food, or to evade predators, or to deal with social dynamics, or to defend our tribe from neighboring raiders (or to raid a neighboring tribe ourselves!). That’s when it’s useful to have all our brain cylinders firing.
How does being smart help us lose weight? For one thing, our brains on BDNF typically operate from the neocortex, the part of the brain that takes care of long-term, strategic thinking. It’s much easier to say yes to a salad and no to a bucket of fried calamari when we’re able to weigh the consequences of our actions in terms of important future goals.
Additionally, being smart usually comes with being engaged in what we’re doing, and enjoying that engagement. We’re much less likely to be bored or restless, which are two states from which many of us habitually rescue ourselves with hyper-palatable foods.
The second way movement aids in weight loss depends on also eating a minimally processed, plant-centric diet; it doesn’t work in tandem with the Standard American fare of processed junk and animal-based meals.
It’s this: vigorous movement ramps up our metabolism while we’re doing it and for a period of time after. We burn more calories in less time. As we’ve seen, we will compensate for this increased expenditure by desiring more food. That’s why it’s critical to eat for satiety on filling, calorically dilute foods. That way we don’t overconsume on calories to make up for the exercise we’ve just done.
Third, movement confers concrete psychological benefits. Studies have shown that exercise is at least as effective as medication to treat depression – and comes without negative side effects. For those of us who remember soothing our broken hearts with a couple of pints of Ben & Jerry’s following a breakup, it’s clear that making healthy choices is easier when we’re in a good mood.
Fourth, engaging in regular physical activity can trigger a significant mindset shift: we can begin to see ourselves as human athletes. Whether we compete or simply walk or run or play tennis or swim for the joy of it, we begin to value our ability to perform physical feats.
That shift is profound – now we eat in order to move powerfully and joyfully, rather than exercising in order to burn off calories. It’s the difference between driving your car in circles so you can buy more gas, vs filling your tank so you can go on a fun and exciting road trip.
Once you’re eating to fuel movement, rather than to stop being fat and sick, it becomes much easier to stick to your eating plan. You’re now motivated to chase and maintain something you want (high performance), rather than avoid something you don’t want (obesity and disease).
Fifth, engaging in vigorous movement provides a template for a crucial skill needed for stickig to a new, health-promoting diet: the ability to resist cravings and postpone comfort.
Because the foods we want to eliminate from our diet are everywhere, and hyper-palatable, and because we’ve used them to manipulate our moods and “get high” for so long, they will continue to sing their siren song to us even after we’ve decided to say goodbye for good.
The ability to ride out cravings is crucial, and nothing trains us better than engaging in uncomfortable levels of physical exertion on a regular basis. When we move so our heart is pounding and our breath is labored, it can feel yucky. To persist for another 10 seconds, or minute, or 20 minutes, is a practice that builds the same muscle we use to say no to onion rings, chocolate cake, and alcohol.
Sixth, engaging in natural human movement keeps us sane. Imagine a bird whose wings are clipped, or a fish that wasn’t allowed to swim, or a pig or chicken in a cage too small for it to turn around. We wouldn’t expect those animals to be happy, well-adjusted, and mentally stable.
It’s the same for us. Being human is being a bipedal animal – the quintessential walker and runner. We are the beasts who can run for miles. Reclaiming our authentic heritage as bipeds makes it much easier to eat the foods that are natural for us as well.
Getting Started with Movement
If you’ve been relatively sedentary for a while, getting started moving may be challenging. It’s supposed to be; remember our ancestral environment, full of challenges and dangers and sometimes low on calories?
You better believe it took a lot of strenuous physical effort to get ‘er done in those days. We wouldn’t have had a ton of energy to spare, and we needed ready reserves for those emergency situations where we had to run like crazy to avoid a predator or a wildfire.
So our default movement strategy became: Don’t.
If you can grab some rest, do it. If you can chillax, you’d be nuts to run around in circles or jump up and down for no reason. (If those sound like jogging and exercise class, that’s on purpose.)
You’re going to have to override that desire to lay back if you want to start a movement habit. You’ll have to remind yourself that back in the ancestral day, movement wasn’t optional. As WellStart Health co-founder Josh LaJaunie poetically puts it, “Either you moved, or you ended up a lion turd.”
Moving When Heavy
Starting an exercise habit can be challenging for anyone. If you’re heavy, you’ve got some special issues to deal with.
The biggest thing to remember in getting started on movement is to begin as safely and gently as you can, especially if you are starting cold. Have faith in your (body’s) ability to make progress, and know that if you just begin, you’ll increase your capacity and performance and weight loss and all the other positive outcomes you want over time.
You don’t need special gear, or shoes, or clothes, or electronic trackers to go for a walk. You just need to move your body from place to place. If you’re in a wheelchair, go for a “roll” instead: use your arms to move yourself around. Just start exerting a little bit more than you’re used to, and guess what? You’re a human athlete doing what comes naturally.
Go slow, and give your body time to adapt. Walking or running when heavy is an unnatural activity, as our bones and connective tissue and muscles were designed to support and move a light human frame. Land as lightly as you can on each foot, taking tiny steps to do so if necessary.
Aim for discomfort, not pain. If you experience swelling, or discoloration, or aches that don’t go away after a few days, dial it back. Check with a physical therapist or other healthcare professional to fix whatever movement patterns are causing the problem.
If you are drawn to other forms of exercise, by all means go for it. If you used to be a dancer, you might enjoy Zumba, or NIA, or a modern dance class, or just going out dancing and letting it all shake.
If you used to play football, you might feel more comfortable in the weight room. Start there. Any form of movement is better than none, so start anywhere.
That said, don’t discount the fact that you are a human, and humans are born to run – and jog, and walk. True, in this society you may not need to cover ground to earn your daily bread and defend your territory. But as we’ve seen, your body, brain, and mind still require frequent doses of bipedal locomotion to stay healthy and balanced.
Mental and Emotional Health
The physical aspects of weight loss are pretty straightforward: eat better, move more.
If you could just follow those four words of advice, you’d be set. The trouble is, simple ain’t always easy. And both of those directives fly in the face of our evolutionary programming to prefer calorically dense foods and avoid physical exertion whenever possible.
We can decide to do both of those things, and the more we practice them, the easier they become to maintain. What compromises both our decision-making ability, and our ability to follow through on those decisions, is unmanaged stress.
How Stress Affects Weight
When we’re in the grip of stress that we aren’t equipped or trained to handle, we’re prone to make poor food choices and ditch our exercise. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with us. The opposite is true: our evolutionary programming is just doing its job.
Here’s why: while we think of stress as a mental and emotional phenomenon, it’s actually a physical one. We have the ability to get stressed out because that response helped us survive in our ancestral environment.
Stress is how our body responds to the threat of mortal danger. It's not a decision; it’s not optional; and it’s not gradual.
The first thing a body wants to do, before the danger is imminent and we’re faced with a full blown life or death situation, is stock on calories. After all, who knows when we’ll get the chance to eat again? Because we’re preparing for an emergency, we want to make sure we eat the most calorically dense food we can. In our modern society, that means junk.
Since stress is a response to a danger in the environment, we wisely focus on that environment when we’re stressed out. It’s no time for navel-gazing when the lion is prowling in the tall grass.
This means we become “mindless” of our bodies, and their needs. In this state, it’s easy to “stress eat” and not pay attention to cues like satiety, or even taste.
Finally, stress feels bad. This is a good thing; if we enjoyed the experience of stress, we wouldn’t be so motivated to act. And we might end up a lion turd.
Being motivated to act is fine if we’re in a situation where fight or flight are reasonable options. Most of our modern stressors can’t be solved by beating something up or taking to our heels. Traffic jams, passive-aggressive emails, surly children, and mortgages aren’t amenable to brute force or running away screaming (believe me, I’ve tried).
Instead of acting in accordance with our biological programming, we stew. We worry. We fear. We think unkind thoughts about ourselves, others, and the universe.
We know from experience how to make those bad feelings go away, at least in the very short term. We eat ice cream, and buckets of fried chicken. (As well as dozens of other coping mechanisms.) And we feel instantly better, for a little while.
Chronic stress also undermines our exercise regimen. Thinking we’re under constant threat of attack is exhausting. Our endocrine system keeps pumping out fight or flight hormones, and eventually the system burns itself out.
How to Bust Stress
We can’t solve the obesity epidemic, globally or for ourselves, until we train ourselves to become stress-proof. There are many approaches that have merit, including cognitive behavioral techniques and meditation, but the quickest and most direct route to handling stress is to deal with it on a physical level, through breathing and muscular tension and relaxation.
As we’ve seen, stress is primarily a physical phenomenon that primes us for action. While we lack conscious control over most aspects of the stress response, we do have control over two key areas: breathing and muscle tonus.
Breathing to De-Stress
When we experience stress, our breathing gets shallow and quickens. We draw breath in sharply and suddenly. (If you don’t believe me, sneak up behind someone and pop a balloon three inches behind their head.)
We determine the threat level in any situation not only through the five external senses, but through a monitoring loop within the body itself. The brain notices, “Breathing is rapid and shallow,” and determines, “this must be a dangerous situation.”
That is, we can reinforce a stress loop by allowing our body to go into fight or flight. And, more hopefully, we can short-circuit a stress loop by consciously choosing to breath in a way incompatible with danger.
To reverse stress, simply breathe deep and slow, and spend more time on the exhale than the inhale.
Relaxing Muscles to De-Stress
We also can achieve conscious control of the tonus, or tension level, of the large motor muscles of our bodies, as well as those of the face. One of the first instinctual manifestations of the stress response is what is called “turtling,” or protecting the vulnerable head and ventral (front-facing) organs.
Imagine going from an open, upright posture to an instant fetal position, and you’ll get a sense of the motion and quality of turtling. This shift is accomplished by muscular tension in the face, neck, shoulders, arms, back, hips, and legs.
We can arrest a stress response by learning how to relax these muscles on command. The easiest way is a method called Progressive Relaxation, which paradoxically starts with tensing muscles on purpose.
You can find lots of videos and articles about Progressive Relaxation online. For now, get started by tensing your right arm and hand to about 50% tension while you inhale through the nose. Now exhale through the mouth while you let all the tension go. Repeat twice more.
You’ll discover that you can relax more deeply after purposefully adding tension to the muscles. Once your arm is more relaxed, spend a few moments getting familiar with that new state. You’ll want to return to it again, especially when you feel tension creeping in again through the stresses of life.
Repeat with the other arm, and with the other muscle groups in your body. If you lay down and spend 10 minutes doing a full Progressive Relaxation sequence three times a week, you’ll start training your body to response to excess tension by relaxing.
The Key Element: Community
We’ve looked at obesity, and how to overcome it, largely through the lens of our evolutionary biology and psychology.
We’ve seen that we’re driven to consume the foods that were most scarce and valued in our ancestral environment, foods that are now ubiquitous, convenient, and cheap. We need to override that programming to survive and thrive in this modern environment, and purposefully choose foods that mimic what the bulk of our diet used to be: whole, unprocessed foods of plant origin.
We’ve seen that movement which used to be required for survival is now optional, and that we have a bias toward conservation of energy that can discourage us from exercising. We need to override our desire to lounge around and move as if it were still keeping us alive.
We’ve seen that unchecked stress can undermine our food and exercise intentions and ability to follow through on those intentions. We need to train our bodies to turn off the stress response when it arises in the absence of physical threat.
What we’ve left out of the picture is perhaps the most powerful aspect of our evolutionary heritage: our need for community.
It’s almost impossible to do this alone, because of our inherent social programming. Back in the old days, the best way to stay alive was to do exactly what everyone else in your tribe was doing.
If a bunch of them start running, you didn’t stop to ask why – you ran first and asked questions later (or not at all).
If you wandered away from the tribe, you were easy prey – and more likely to wind up a lion turd.
As a bunch of slow, claw-less, fang-less, naked apes, we relied on strategic cooperation to protect ourselves from predators and divide labor in a way that got everyone fed and cared for. So if you were kicked out of the tribe for threatening the group’s norms, you were fated to die.
All of which is to say, changing the way you eat and move and think can be hard enough. But doing so while everyone around you keeps doing things the old ways is nigh on impossible.
That’s why it’s crucial to find and align yourself with a community of like-minded and like-acting people who are already doing what you aspire to do, and who are achieving what you want to achieve.
Community provides role models – people whom you can look at to silence the doubts you’ll naturally feel when you move away from the herd.
Community provides support – others who are doing what you’re doing, so you can feel good about your choices. After all, you’re not in this alone.
And community provides guidance and advice, in the form of experts and teachers and coaches: sherpas who are intimately familiar with the terrain and the journey, and can help you prepare and pack and climb the mountain safely and efficiently.
If you’re ready to get off the weight loss industry merry-go-round of hyped promises and impossible outcomes, and take charge of your own weight and health destiny, please check out WellStart Health’s 12-week On-ramp to Health program.
You’ll find a community of experts and guides who have themselves achieved dramatic health improvements by adopting positive lifestyle habits. Who understand the difficulties, doubts, and dreads that go along with making a big change. And who have lots of experience as weight loss sherpas, guiding you on your own journey of empowerment and success.
Find out more at WellStartHealth.com.