Letter/Observer Forum

Don’t Muscle Worry, Be Happy

The article “Exercising Judgment: The Psychology of Fitness”(Observer, January 2008 ) described what some research has to say about the ways we avoid exercise. Looking at the data from the bodily economic strategy they all make sense. In my study with children (Ralt, 2006) I have observed that muscle mass and activity play a dramatic and underestimated role in obesity and wellness. Because muscle activity regulates our bodily economic strategy, increased physical activity plays an important role in maintaining good health. However, as muscles are among the costliest tissues of the body, we are constantly looking for ways to halt them. It is therefore not surprising that well-developed muscles rapidly revert to their original size if not constantly used or trained.

Reduction of muscle activity strains the body (“why aren’t my muscles moving?”) and forces it into a “Save Mode.” This Save Mode is a pitfall that leads to a variety of harmful behaviors: eating more, moving less, reducing health maintenance, gloomy mood and fat accumulation.

On the flip side, daily physical activity promotes a strategy of abundance (“wow, I can do it”). Such abundance leads to freedom of movement, satiety, wellness and letting go of fat storage. The interplay between conserving and abundance demonstrates why obesity promotes obesity and how dieting (without enhanced physical activity) further aggravates the obesity situation. In the old days, physical activity was essential to living, so Save Modes were always short. Today, however, when we often do not need to move at all, we could be stuck in Save Mode.

I prefer to translate the term “Save Mode” to “Muscle Worry” and emphasize that muscles must stop “worrying” in order to achieve wellness. The Muscle Worry is manifested by an urge to eat (the immobile muscles might worry that a lack of enough energy resources is causing the inactivity). This is in contrast to emotional worry, defined by a lack of appetite. Naturally, the boundaries of the two types of worry are sometimes blurred.

The urge to eat is, in fact, regulated by two unrelated types of urges. One is our daily energy expenditure, and the other is the need to accumulate energy for the future (our muscle worry). Understanding these drives can help in pinpointing the source of overeating, failure to exercise or fat accumulation. This strengthens the premise that relaxation and less worry are directly related to happier exercising and less food consumption.

Today, at a time when lower physical activity is prevalent, girls are more prone to obesity and to mood disorders than boys. Why? Less physical activity combined with innately lower muscle mass in women (as opposed to men) can play a dramatic role in the female physiology and cause economic alarm in the system. Such alarm triggers distress and may induce further physical energy saving mechanisms.  Our physiology is designed to try to save energy; therefore, awareness is required to keep us daily (yes, every day) physically active. For more information, see http://nettingno.blogspot.com. ♦

Ralt, D. (2006). The muscle – fat duel or why obese children are taller? BMC Pediatrics, 6, 33. Available at www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2431/6/33

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