Thinking about exercise
The New York Times recently published an article that examined concepts of exercise in normal-weight and obese Chinese women. They found that when asked to imagine themselves exercising, the obese women’s brains functioned differently from the brains of the leaner women.
The women were put in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine that measured which areas of the brain lit up when they saw photos of people doing heavy exercise like playing tennis or running and tried to imagine themselves doing the same things.
Then they showed photos of people lying on a sofa or sitting at a desk and asked the participants to imagine those things.
What they found was that the obese women’s brains lit up in areas related to negative emotions when imagining the heavy exercise and lit up in areas related to positive emotions when imagining the resting.
The brains of the leaner women reacted in an opposite way.
Is this really surprising? I don’t think so. If you’re thin and healthy, exercise can be enjoyable. But if you’re lugging around 300 pounds or if you jiggle a lot when you run, you’re not apt to enjoy running or tennis or similarly active forms of exercise, especially when doing these activities in a public place where onlookers can make fun of your shape.
I once read a book by a man who had had a sex-change operation (Conondrum, by Jan Morris). Morris said the only thing she regretted about her formerly male body was that mountain climbing (as James Morris, he was a journalist who covered the climbing of Mt Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay) required less effort with a male shape. In other words, the exercise depended on the body shape, rather than the other way around.
When I was diagnosed with diabetes, I lost about 20% of my body weight. Before the weight loss, climbing the steep hill behind my house was a chore, and, like those overweight Chinese women, I dreaded having to do it. After the weight loss, I wondered why I had thought the climb was so difficult. It was easy after losing the excess pounds. I can’t say that I leaped out of bed in the morning to run joyously up the hill. But when I needed to, I just hiked up without thinking about it.
The Times author does admit that “it is impossible to know from this study whether a dislike of exercise contributed to or resulted from weight gain.” But in the minds of most thin people, overweight people are overweight because they don’t exercise, and this sort of story tends to confirm that bias.
I think we’d all agree that being active is healthy. Although it doesn’t seem to contribute a lot to weight loss, regular activity seems to help keep the weight off once you’ve lost it.
But being active doesn’t have to mean playing tennis, mountain climbing, or, as illustrated in this story, running up steep steps. Just sitting less, working while standing up, or gentle walking can have many health benefits.
If you can lose some weight, then you can gradually add some more strenuous exercise to your daily routine to help avoid regaining all that weight you worked so hard to lose.
Exercise is good. We just need to figure out how to find an activity that works with our current weight and interests.