Contributed by our good friend, Debra Atkinson
If you’re used to thinking exercise equals burn calories and lose weight, you’re thinking the traditional way we’ve been taught for decades. We know that exercise has a positive effect on weight loss but it turns out there’s more to it.
Exercise can, and should, be a part of your weight loss for happiness plan. What if you didn’t just get happier when you lost weight, you lost weight when you got happier? The truth is, you do.
When you feel happy, you have a better self-image and a better who—that’s who you are being and how you show up. That is, you show up differently at work, in social situations, and most likely where you make choices about what’s good for your health and goals. You have more drive toward self-preservation and away from self-sabotage.
You’re less likely to seek mood-boosting foods high in fat and high sugar if you’re happy already. Let’s face it you know the molten lava cake isn’t going to help your weight loss efforts anyways.
Creating an Environment for Weight Loss
Serotonin is our feel-good friend—it’s a large part of neurochemistry that creates happiness. You can boost your serotonin by being outdoors in sunlight, venting with friends, or exercising—that’s true whether or not the exercise is a killer boot camp that leaves you whimpering or an easy stroll around the neighborhood.
This happiness, is potentially more responsible for weight loss than is the number of calories you burn or how much fat you used for fuel during or in the post oxygen consumption after exercise.
Say you went to boot camp to torch 700 calories in an hour. You hate it, but you’re desperate to lose weight. Your friend goes meandering around the lake with a couple other gal pals only exerting hard enough to get breathless because they’re laughing so hard and in the end loses more weight than you. Sure, a lot of factors might come into play, but there’s plenty of evidence that loving what you do is good for your health, and your waistline.
Most notably, when you’re happy you’re more likely to stay committed to things you know you ought to do. If you are choosing exercise that you enjoy while you're doing it (whether or not it burns the most calories), it helps to improve your hormone balance so you can create an environment conducive to weight loss.
I have a client, Jennifer, with significant weight to lose. She’s not happy about her current weight and health status but she’s happy overall with who she is, which makes it easy for her to stay on track. Being happy with herself and being committed to health habits has contributed to her 75-pound weight loss in the last year, even though she has to get up at 4am regularly to get to the gym before work starts at 7:30am.
Another client, Mary (name change for confidentiality), is feeling overwhelmed and consumed with stress over changes in her life. Though she has much less weight to lose, she is staying focused on the problems and challenges rather than the opportunities. She’s quick to eat out and choose something that isn’t what she committed to doing for her body, or to skip the gym in favor of workaholic tendencies.
If you’re more like Jennifer lucky you. Keep feeding that happiness by regularly expressing gratitude and choosing exercise you love to do.
If instead you’re more like Mary, you’re not stuck. Realizing you may have a little “half empty” attitude is the first step. Here are a few other steps that you want to include daily if you’re fighting off a case of bad circumstances in your life right now.
5 Tips to Boost Happiness
Drink water. Stay hydrated to keep energy high. Think about it. When was the last time you were drained of energy and felt happy at the same time? Tired and happy, yes, but likely when your energy drops you tend to feel a little blue.
Get grounded. You don’t have to meditate but get outdoors and do something simple. It could be yoga on your deck or a walk, ideally in green grass. City walk if you must but make your way to green space if possible for something called forest bathing. It increases a sense of peace and calm. Reducing stress and regaining a centered feeling will help you regain that happiness factor that in turn makes you take better care of yourself.
Circulate. Do a headstand, stretch, find another reason to take that walk, but you need to get oxygen delivered to all your extremities and take a few deeper breaths now and then.
Eat chocolate. Going for high fat isn’t always bad. In fact, walnuts, and avocados are also known to support brain-boosting chemicals that cause feelings of happiness or at least move your needle from more anxious to more happy.
Get a hug. The cuddle hormone, oxytocin, is another feel-good catalyst. Sex is really helpful but you don’t honestly have to take it that far. Hug another person or even a pet to reduce anxiety and increase happiness.
I want to take a minute and introduce myself, and the question you are probably are, or should be, asking: “Who is Debra Atkinson?” I’m a fitness professional who spent decades hearing client’s talk about getting older and their metabolism slowing. Not yet 50+, and not anywhere near menopause at the time, I gave them the best science available.
I perfectly fit the fitness instructor/trainer stereotype of “exercising all day.” Then in my early 40s I cut my physical activity teaching load by 6 hours a week! Talk about bad timing. I began doing more lecturing and fewer activity labs.
Even though I wasn’t exercising nearly as much any more, my job as a personal training director still had me actively moving around much of the day.
Call me crazy, but at 49 I stopped doing that too and began sitting behind a desk for 10-14 hours a day. You know, the dream of your own business and that relaxed pace… Let’s just say, call me before you do it.