DLW is an occasional blog about how people spend the time of their lives (every moment) to enable health, balance, meaning and fulfillment. As a blogspot about doing, it draws from personal stories and from studies of everyday living. It's main idea is that to be well, people must be involved fully in what they do. The activities that occupy our days help to connect us to the world, define who we are, and keep us healthy.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obesity and Lifestyle Change - Thinking About Activities

In previous posts we have discussed how people use time, their patterns of activity, and how these relate to their well being. These discussions have focused a great deal on how activities influence mood, or how they can serve to reduce stress. Less has been said about how activity influences our heart, lungs, nervous system, bones and muscles and other physiological systems.

I hasten to point out that this is not a post about exercise and physical fitness. The body is a complex system, with many individual subsystems working together to explain that complexity. Ordinarily, we think of the brain as the control center. But we seldom think of the back office systems that influence how the brain works. One of these back office systems is the endocrine system. This system regulates the chemicals in our bloodstream that carry messages to the nervous system. It influences metabolism, tissue growth, development and mood. Scientific discussions about how stress harms the body focus directly on this system of alerting or message sending through hormones. This brings us to the main topic of this post—obesity

Obesity is a significant health problem and it can be described as a kind of banner or symbolic indicator of how activity and lifestyle in the 21st century can influence health in both beneficial and harmful ways. Obesity is an epidemic, and if you visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), you will see a dramatic illustration of how the incidence of obesity has spread across the country over the past two decades. The data clearly suggest that obesity is not just a regional phenomenon, nor a socio-economic phenomenon. It is a lifestyle phenomenon that is related to how people spend time to consume and expend energy. If you notice in the CDC chart how the prevalence of obesity has spread, states where there are more outdoor opportunities for hiking, skiing and kayaking, or more farming and ranching— seem to be the last places where the obesity epidemic arrived. That suggests environment (and activity opportunity) influences obesity. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. There is another important factor related to weight gain—hormones. Especially hormones resulting from living stressful lifestyles.

Without going into too much detail or repeating information available widely on the Internet, most diets (the usual approach to battling weight gain) fail. Why? Because hormones signal our body to store energy (or calories) so that we can survive famine conditions. These systems are ancient, biological survival mechanisms that evolved over millions of years when humans were hunters or gatherers. Animals in the wild have the same systems, but they spend their awake hours in a quest to find food just as humans once did. They may go for days in their quest for meals, burning more calories than they are able to replenish. Contrast this with the modern life of humans in the U.S. and other developed nations: Going for hours without a meal is often viewed as a starvation diet!

Thus, animal species (including humans) are biologically wired to store calories and resist efforts to expend them. All dieters know that as soon as they begin reducing their food intake, their body reacts by increasing its efforts to hold on to those life sustaining calories. That's what makes dieting so difficult. But food intake is only half of the equation.

The other part is energy expenditure. As modern conveniences are developed, technology becomes our enemy. We move less, watch TV or surf the Internet more, and there is little calorie burning to offset our increased consumption. Moreover, eating itself is an activity, and a pleasurable one. Generally, people would rather eat than work out on the treadmill. Eating is also typically a social activity. When people get together to enjoy themselves and each other, food is often involved.The result is increased body weight. Exercise intentions expressed in New Year resolutions are, well— well intended. But habits and routines are hard to break. People need stimulating reasons to live their lives differently. They need to be motivated to move more and eat less.

But the story doesn't end there. Stress (and there is a lot of that around lately!) produces hormones that signal the body to conserve energy. So metabolism (calorie burning) slows as a result of stress too. Some scientists attribute the obesity epidemic as much to increased levels of stress (and the influence of stress hormones on slowing metabolism) as they do to lifestyle patterns that are characterized by sedentary activities and increased food consumption.

So, at long last, we get to the point of this post about obesity. Obesity is more than weight gain. It is a condition of lifestyle that is affected by factors that have nothing to do with eating. The interesting thing is, these factors involve human activities, and the most natural solutions have to do with the activities people do as they live their everyday lives. If those activities help people burn more calories and eat less, so much the better. But if they give pleasure, reduce stress, and stop signaling the body to store energy, they provide a double benefit. The bottom line: Activity is more than exercise!

About Me

I am a writer, lifelong student, former academic and new blogger. My passion continues to be everyday living. I am interested in what people do, how, when and why they do it, and what it means for their their understanding of the world and hence, their well being.