I just finished reading a book called Move a Little, Lose a Lot.
If there is one simple answer to this complex problem, author Dr James Levine argues, it is that we aren't moving enough for our emotional, mental and physical well-being. He talks about how the typical person a century or more ago would have been active during the day -- not necessarily doing strenuous physical labor, but on their feet and moving around. In contrast, nowadays, many people drive their car almost to the door of their workplace, ride an elevator to their office, sit for 9-11 hours of work, and then head home to sit in front of the TV for a few more hours before they go to sleep.
Levine emphasizes that most people who start an exercise program give it up quickly because (1) they can't find the time for it (2) they are too out of shape to feel good when they start exercising vigorously -- it actually causes a drop in their sense of well-being.
His solution: start moving more in everyday life. He points to research that shows that you don't have to sweat and have an elevated heart-rate for exercise to make a big difference in your weight and energy level. He mentions a lot of people who were able to drop pounds and clothes sizes without making any changes except for moving more.
One of the mysteries of weight loss research is that obese people really often do eat less than thin people. And sometimes the thin people are just as sedentary as the obese people -- they don't have a formal exercise program. But Levine found that the thinner people tended to do more of what he calls NEAT -- which stands for Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
I remember noticing this in college -- how a friend of mine who was slightly overweight tended to conserve her energy, whereas I tended to move a lot more just during the course of daily life. My mother in law has this down to an art form -- everything in her day is activity-oriented. Even when she is watching TV or reading email, she's often jumping up to do some little thing she remembered, or refill her coffee, or look out the window at the bird feeder.
My own mother, who also remained slender throughout life, is of a quieter temperament, but she gardens, hangs up clothes on the clothesline rather than machine-drying, takes the dog for a walk twice a day, and that kind of thing.
Levine says that this kind of thing is the very type of thing that "energy-conservers" don't do naturally. But they can learn to retrain their habits, and they often find that staying active on this mild level reduces their stress and depression and boredom, and helps them take more charge of their lives.
I didn't really expect to like this book much. It looked sort of gimmicky on the face of it, in that "New Research Shows!!" sort of way. And I doubt if the idea accounts completely for all our health and weight problems in the US. However, it is sensible and I think that even aside from weight issues, the advice to keep yourself active during the course of daily life is good.
The second part of the book is a week by week plan for changing your habits one step at a time. If you followed it, you would end up by working quite a few healthy changes into your life without, and this is key, having to put aside a huge chunk of time for exercising, changing clothes, showering and all that type of thing.
I don't know if the exercise level he suggests is sufficient to get your heart-rate at target and put you into aerobic health. But it would certainly be way better than nothing. And as he points out, once you get the habit of movement, a lot of other things follow -- you generally feel more positive about activity, you might be more inclined to get involved in interesting activities that would fill up the empty time you spend eating in front of the TV, and so on.
One suggestion he makes which anybody could do right away is to make a chart of how you spend your day (in half hour increments) and then mark the activities red for sedentary, yellow for standing, and green for moving. Then try to figure out how to move the reds to yellow or green.
So if you watch TV for 2 hours a day, by setting up the treadmill and walking at a very easy pace (1 mile per hour!!) you can switch the red to a green. Plus, during that time, if you are walking, you are probably not snacking on insulin-busting junk food.
If you spend a lot of time on the computer, he recommends getting an under-desk cycle or putting the computer on a stand next to your stairmaster or treadmill. If this sounds painful remember that he is not talking about getting breathless and sweaty, but just a very light level of movement.
Personally I've been doing almost all my reading on the stationary bike (and sometimes watching movies with my family). If I could figure out a way to do this while on my computer I would be set.
When I'm talking on the phone I'm often pacing or stepping up and down on the mini-trampoline, or sometimes scrubbing the baseboards or cupboard doors, which are also "green" activities.
One woman says she tried to make everything she did "less energy efficient" which sounds funny but makes sense because in some ways our modern problem is maximum convenience in everything. We don't even have to chop vegetables in order to eat, or get out of the car to buy a meal.
This all seemed to accord with what I've read elsewhere and seen in my actual life. I liked the way "weight loss" was de-emphasized in favor of just living healthier. Many of the people mentioned in the book lost weight without making any other changes, but the weight loss wasn't the biggest change they noticed -- they noticed a more positive attitude, more energy, and less stress. So the weight loss was just one part of a bigger change.