You can't out-exercise your overeating self

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Fran Scott

Most states of overweight or obesity are the result of consistent overeating and a sedentary lifestyle more so than the lack of structured exercise bouts. When people embark on a weight loss effort, though, the usual approach is to get to the gym. In the scheme of the giant calorie game called weight loss, though, the calories we spend in the gym are a very small part of our daily expenditure. An hour of gym time won't make up for consistent calorie excesses and 23 sedentary hours. Of all the clients I meet wanting to lose weight, it is nearly without exception that they are open to getting more active at the health club, but often initially do not want to address their overeating. The mindset is that they'll be able to continue overeating and merely out-exercise these indulgences.

Why are people so resistant to changing eating behaviors which obviously have led them to being overweight, not to mention have negatively affected their disease risk profile? The answer is food is more than just nutrients and calories. It is the ultimate comforter: it is love, it is grief therapy, it is stress relief, it is a companion, it is a boredom buster ? you get the idea. It can be and is for many people, their main coping mechanism for the ravages of life. Under-eating, which is a requirement of weight loss, and moderate eating, which is a requirement for weight maintenance, are like going into the fangs of life without armor, a very vulnerable experience. We must learn, though, to live in the crucible and to stop using food to fend off the slightest to the most searing that life has to offer. You may bury your mind in a cloud of sugar whip this time, but around the next bend is another life event. When they happen to us, it's common to think that everyone else is sailing through life effortlessly, laughing all the way. We feel compelled to live happier, thinner and richer.

To illustrate this point to my clients, I parody Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which in essence, put our physiological and safety needs before esteem and actualization. Similarly, in what I call the hierarchy of basic drives, I place comfort/peace/relief at the base of the pyramid and optimal health (which includes maintaining a healthy, natural weight) at the peak. What happens in between is the key to our health or disease state.

When life events happen and cause pain or stress, we can face it head on, or we can numb/distract/bury the feelings. Comfort food, anyone? When we face these events and concomitant feelings head on, we can possibly transform the pain and/or stress and then don't need food (or shopping or alcohol or nicotine) to numb/distract/bury. Since there's no escaping the downers of life, we'd better find a way to deal with them other than food. Food may be love, but it's also calories and too many will expand your waistline, erode your self-esteem and leave you out of the game of life.

Willpower won't get you to the peak of the pyramid. Over time, the life events will wear you down and you'll have to get comfort somewhere. It seems paradoxical, but humility, empathy, honesty, and a robust daily does of self-inquiry will get you a shot at the top. That's why there's such a giant connection between healing your life from the inside and getting a healthy life on the outside.Fran Scott is a certified exercise physiologist.


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