I have to admit that I am slightly obsessed with counting my steps on my FitBit. My sons talked me into getting one under the premise that I could “friend” people who also have them, and we could “encourage” each other toward our fitness goals. And you can.
But it’s not quite working out as planned. The problem is my friend, Kevin. I was fine as long as the number of steps I was taking was at the top of the leaderboard of friends. But then I made the mistake of friending Kevin. Marine, dog-walking, daily-exercising Kevin. I went to bed last night with 21,000 steps, only to see that Kevin had taken 23,000. Dadgum Kevin!
My interest in exercise is, of course, for its own intrinsic rewards — general fitness, being outdoors, weight-control. But if Olga Khazan of The Atlantic is correct, my amped-up steps may not be super-charging my metabolism. They may even be slowing it down.
According to studies reflected in Khazan’s article, “Exercise in Futility,” Americans are working out more than ever — yet the obesity pandemic rises unabated. Obesity in the U.S. from 1988 to 2006 increased by 23 percent in men and 35 percent in women, even while men increased frequency of exercise by 50 percent and women doubled theirs. And while nobody does obesity like America, global studies reflect a similar trend — even in Japan and Norway, the correlation between exercise and obesity is, in Khazan’s word, “murky.”
Why is general American increased physical activity not helping to lower our general body mass index? One reason is physiological — we burn more calories when we start exercising, but metabolism adjusts, slows and plateaus as energy levels keep increasing. But the main culprit seems to be our brains. That is, we tend to overestimate wildly how much we’ve exercised — which tends to give us a mental hall pass to overeat. Khazan cites one study “that found that people fresh from the gym overestimated their energy use by up to 400 percent and ate more than twice the calories they actually burned.” We say to ourselves (hypothetically, of course), “I have 21,000 steps, I can now have that peanut butter pie.” But it turns out that pie costs 100,000 steps.
Countless Americans will begin the new year by joining gyms, setting weight loss goals, and buying FitBits. But apparently you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet. And the wide road to solving weight problems starts with better eating before taking more steps.
Somewhere there’s a metaphor here for the church in North America. Maybe greater intake of grace precedes higher output of works? I’ll think about it as I’m getting in my steps this morning. And I’ll try not to have a “breakfast dessert” when I get back.