Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Inspiring People to Move

People are talking about a new study that predicts 75 percent of U.S. adults will be overweight in 2015. It is a bizarre study, and not just because it uses body mass index as the measure of obesity. Body mass index can provide a crude approximation of how fat a person is, but it isn’t used to indicate obesity in most serious scientific studies because it doesn’t distinguish fat from muscle or a 30-inch waistline from a 40-inch waistline. It just doesn’t make the distinctions you want to make when you talk about the health consequences of fat. So the use of body mass index as a measure is questionable, but that’s not what is bizarre about this latest study. What is so bizarre about it is the way it applies demographics to obesity, as if your body weight is entirely determined by your age and sex, and not at all by your own actions, choices, and individual nature. Then it uses a simple extrapolation to predict the future, a technique that almost never works. The result is a prediction that no scientist would take seriously and that no responsible journalist would include in the news.

Yet you don’t have to be a scientist with a research grant to reach the essential point that the study makes, which is that lots of people in the United States are overweight or obese. Fitness is a multibillion dollar industry and it is almost all about people wanting to lose weight or keep from gaining weight. The size of the fitness industry is even more astonishing when you stop to consider how simple its objective is. All the exercise videos, all the machines, and 90 percent of the classes are geared toward the same simple purpose: to inspire people to move.

The fitness industry doesn’t emphasize that point because if people realized how simple fitness is, they might not buy all the equipment and services. But movement is all it takes to be fit. And not any great amount of movement, either. The difference between being out of shape and being fit is little more than the question of moving around for a small part of the day. About 3 percent of the time, day after day, is what it takes. The technical side of exercise, though critically important to competitive athletes, is mostly a distraction as far as beginners are concerned. It scarcely matters what kind of moving you do as long as you don’t hurt yourself by doing something too extreme or too repetitive. You could just get up out of your chair and move right where you are, jump up and down and side to side in some way, and it would work. If you wanted to give your movement some structure, you could go for a walk. Yet many people quickly feel discouraged approaching exercise in such a simplistic way. So the whole point of Sweatin’ to the Oldies or the Ultra Spinning class or the Bowflex machine is to get you through an exercise routine that you wouldn’t do on your own — to focus your mind on the process of moving so that you’ll continue to move for more than a minute or two at a time.

Why is it that people need inspiration or some special push to exercise? The human body, after all, is made to move, and we are only talking about getting up and moving around for maybe 3 percent of the day. You could still mostly sit around for the other 97 percent of the time. It doesn’t sound like much to ask. So what makes it so difficult?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t necessarily feel good to move, especially when you’re just getting going. And this is not about laziness, lack of interest, or a shortage of will power. To oversimplify, it is all about inflammation — the whole range of biological effects that cause breakdowns at the cellular level in joints, muscles, and other places in the body. When you think of inflammation, you might think of things like mosquito bites and sunburn, but for most people, the biggest causes of inflammation are food and drugs.

Some kinds of food are known to promote inflammation, while others help prevent it. Lots of people eat diets that could be described as inflammatory, with large amounts of animal protein, sugar, synthetic food ingredients, alcohol, caffeine, and polyunsaturated fat. If what you eat makes it hurt, ever so slightly, when you exercise, then it’s easy to see how the food could make it easy to gain and hard to lose weight.

On top of that, many ordinary drugs also have inflammatory effects. To make it worse, a sedentary lifestyle adds to the tendency to inflammation. So does a high level of body fat. So do many of the diseases that go with being overweight — the diseases that, presumably, create the need for the drugs I mentioned. So there is a vicious cycle of inflammation, lack of inspiration, lack of exercise, drugs, weight gain, and disease. We try to overcome this cycle by inspiring people to exercise using every gimmick we can think of, from flashy videos to fancy exercise machines to sexy exercise clothes. When it works, it changes people’s lives, but it works only a small fraction of the time. It is hard to inspire people to move when it hurts to move, even if it only hurts a little.

Yet you can break out of this cycle any time you want to. Just move. Ignore the initial discomfort and keep going. Keep going day after day and you find that it is soon not as uncomfortable is it might have been on the first few days. Eventually try to get to the point where you are spending three percent of your time in moderate exercise. It sounds too easy when I put it this way, and it is not necessarily as easy as it sounds, but it is essentially just this easy. There may be a great many overweight people in the United States, and it may be one of the biggest issues the country faces, but on an individual level, you don’t have to be part of it. Your weight is not determined by your age, and your weight does not automatically go up as you get older. You can take control of it. The illnesses that go with being overweight do not have to be part of your life. And the simplest way to take control is to decide that you’re going to move — and that you’re not going to wait for inspiration. And if enough people do this, then we won’t have to worry about what a country in which 75 percent of people are overweight will be like, because it will never happen.