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Exercise, Weight Loss, and Happiness.

How does exercise fit into a happy life?

I was very interested to read John Cloud’s recent Time cover story about exercise and weight loss, Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin. This is a very complicated issue, and the article’s argument has sparked many debates – but from a strictly happiness perspective, two points jumped out at me.

First: even if exercise doesn’t help me lose weight (and I admit, I’m very weight-preoccupied), it’s still extremely important for general good health and for not gaining weight -- and for keeping my mood positive. For example, one study showed that even moderate aerobic exercise boosted mood – for as long as twelve hours. Almost everyone I know who exercises regularly says that they stick to their routine for mental as much, or more, than for physical reasons.

Second: I should always be wary of occasions when I have the urge to “treat” myself. So often, treats don’t contribute to long-term happiness. From the article, and from my own observation, it seems that exercise often inspires people with the belief that they deserve a “treat” – and usually a high-calorie treat. For example, I was just reading Sally Koslow’s novel, Little Pink Slips. The main character goes running with her best friend, and afterward, they split a scone. But as Cloud suggests, from a strictly calorie perspective, those two women would have been better off skipping the run and the scone.

It’s also easy to fall into the assumption that because exercise is healthy, anything related to it must be healthy – this tendency is called the halo effect. A friend of mine would chug a big bottle of Nantucket Nectars after working out. He considered this a healthy, energy-boosting drink so never thought about calories at all. I pointed out that a bottle has almost as many calories as a Snickers bar! (My gleeful revelation of this fact did not endear me to him, I must confess.)

For a long time, I’ve been keeping an eye out for studies of how people’s worrying about their weight affects their happiness. To me, this concern seem like a major factor in day-to-day unhappiness. I’ve never seen much on this issue, and if anyone has read any studies about this, I’d love to see the reference.

* I couldn't resist a blog called Happiness in this World: Reflections of a Buddhist Physician, of course, and I was particularly intrigued by this post about The Good Guy Contract.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

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