The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Weight Loss: How to Turn Pain Into Pleasure

Physical activity is not as gruelling as one might think.

The epidemic of obesity and related diseases is caused by a sedentary lifestyle rather than overeating (1), as argued in my previous post. A healthy dose of physical activity is the cure. The problem is that activity has an undeserved reputation for causing pain.

If you are not an athlete, why behave like one?

The nasty reputation of physical activity takes many forms. First, there is a widespread sense that people who indulge themselves on occasions such as family picnics or holiday celebrations need to suffer some pain to balance out the pleasure. This rather unhinged perspective arises in an environment where dieting—and hence food obsession—are common.

This apparent need for punishment is satisfied by the wrack-like exercise equipment many people keep in their basements. A greater variety of repetitive stress machines can be accessed in gyms.

Such devices have their place of course, but they are more suitable for young fit athletes and body builders rather than those who are older, overweight, and out of shape. That may be why many of them spend more time gathering dust in basements than being used.

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For a long time, physicians confused a healthy level of activity with being an athlete but the fog has begun to clear in this respect. The reasoning was that about 20 minutes of intense physical activity was required to raise metabolism sufficiently to lose weight. Hence the many exhortations to exercise until it really hurt.

Since then, exercise physiologists have come to recognize that even moderate levels of physical activity are helpful and that accumulating small bouts of activity is equivalent to prolonged exercise (2).

The masochistic focus of formal exercise programs may be the reason that they produce such poor results. Participants comply with the demands of the exercise regime while being monitored but spend a great deal of time afterwards resting their aching muscles and joints. As psychologists we can agree that if you want people to be active, they should enjoy the activity—and not feel that they are being tortured.

While exercise programs tend to be long on suffering, they are short on time spent active. That is a shame. We do not need pain but we do need to spend a lot of time being active.

The order that will not be obeyed?

Medical experts call for just half an hour per day of physical activity. That is far too little to make a real dent in obesity.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, urban people have a deficit in physical activity relative to hunter-gatherers of about 600 calories (strictly kilocalories, 3). If we wanted to restore a normal level of physical fitness, this would require an additional two hours of moderate physical activity for a person of average weight, which is four times what medical experts are calling for.

Physician recommendations are based on health benefits associated with exercise in epidemiological studies. These are based on what people do already and therefore provide little information on what people should do ideally. The best clue to what is ideal is to look at subsistence populations that manifest a high level of physical fitness and no obesity (1).

Many physicians would likely prefer if Americans had two hours of moderate physical activity per day but hesitate to recommend it. This problem arises in military leadership. Astute captains avoid giving their soldiers orders they know will not be obeyed. Yet the two hours is not unreasonable provided people engage in activities they enjoy.

Replacing pain with pleasure

People in subsistence societies do not take exercise. They gain fitness incidentally from their daily subsistence activities, including child care. In modern societies, we are mostly deprived of such opportunities for an active life.

Yet that is also an opportunity because we can fill the movement deficit with activities we enjoy as opposed to the drudgery of subsistence activities. Whether it is fishing, or golf, shopping or cleaning, carpentry, or table tennis, gardening or sailing, all of these activities require a moderate level of physical activity capable of making up the deficit.

Some people even enjoy manual labor. From that perspective, your front yard is a sort of spa and you pay the lawn service people to use it for their health. Keep the money and lose the pounds.

1. O’Keefe, J. H., Vogel, R., Lavie, C. J., & Cordain, L (2010). Achieving hunter-gatherer fitness in the 21st Century. The American Journal of Medicine, 123, 1082-1086.

2. Haskell, W. L., et al. (2007). Physical activity and public health: Updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, DOI: 10.1249/mss.0b013c3180616b27.

3. Cordain, L., Gotshall, R.W., Eaton, S.B. and Eaton, S.B. (1998). Physical activity, energy expenditure and fitness: an evolutionary perspective. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19, 328 – 335.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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