Exercise and Weight Loss

A castle of square plan surrounded by a water-filled moat. It has round corner towers and a forbidding appearance 1

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes some about losing weight:

I am sure this approach works for some people, but not for me. I’ve never been able to stick to a diet. I love bread, rice, potatoes and, to a lesser extent, sweets. I also fail at doing exercise that I don’t actually enjoy. A little pain is good. But it can’t be the kind of pain that makes me say “I’m glad that’s over.” In short, I couldn’t macho my way out of being fat. I couldn’t out-muscle obesity. […]

It’s interesting seeing people on the street these days. The common reaction is “What did you do?” And the only honest response is “Shove less shit down my throat.” Weight loss, for me, is depressing in its essential passivity. When we talk about an obesitity epidemic, I strongly suspect that what we’re talking about is the cost of societal lifestyle choices presently made manifest. If we want to have food that is pleasurable, but we don’t want to expend time now–either in the form of money, or the form of actual time preparing and cleaning–expect that we will have to expend time later in the form of health problems.

I think that’s largely true. The biggest gym-related thing I’ve done to lose weight is that I did some sessions with a personal trainer who warned me up front that you can’t really lose weight in the gym—you need to eat less food. He helped me build some muscle and feel better about myself, but most of all the admission contrary to interest got me to focus more on what matters.

It is worth pointing out, though, that for all the apparent gluttony of the contemporary American lifestyle, Americans actually don’t consume a particularly large number of calories in historical terms. Estimates I’ve seen of medieval calorie consumption often go up to 4,000 a day or more. But it’s not that medieval peasants were fat, or that they were really rigorous about doing 40 minutes on the elliptical machine every day. Instead, they were engaged in constant physical activity for their daily livelihood. Check out the staggering number of calories you could burn by hand-chopping wood all day long.

I’m not really sure there’s any usable personal or policy advice in that insight, except to say that perhaps at some point in the future we’ll all be working at treadmill desks and possibly much healthier for it. The bulk of human history was spent with our bodies operating at a generally higher metabolic level than happens nowadays.