|DON'T PUNISH YOURSELF LIKE THIS|
Decades ago, Americans got stuck on two completely wrong ways to go about losing weight: eating less and exercising more. We got stuck on the two activities that actually increase hunger and make the human body conserve energy (fat) when it doesn't get the nutrients it needs. Somehow we forgot that the more energy you expend, the more fuel you need and the hungrier you get. Exercising more and eating less only sets you up to constantly fight your body's natural need for adequate nutrients. The following statement might be good news and I'm happy to assert it: if you're completely out of shape and your goal is to lose weight, stop exercising. Stop forcing yourself to do daily physical activity you don't want to do. Maybe just take a walk and call it a day.
We're beginning to let go of the calories-in-calories-out theory of body weight, which has been proven to be incorrect. The human body isn't a machine that grinds up fuel in equal proportion to the energy it outputs. The human body is a delicate chemical balance of hormones that is affected by the kinds of fuel we put in it: eating lots of high glycemic carbohydrates causes insulin problems that lead to diabetes, heart disease and other problems. Calories that come from protein and fat don't cause dangerous fluctuations in insulin levels and are better fuel for us (in other words: go light on sugar and starchy carbs, heavier on fats and non-starchy carbs like green vegetables).
So forget about spending an hour on the StairMaster because you need to burn off that cheesecake. That's not how the human body works. It's true that the body stores extra energy as fat, but the way it stores and releases that extra fat isn't triggered by exercise the way we've been thinking.
Years ago Gary Taubes opposed the usual calories-in-calories-out crap by advancing the theory that eating a sugar- and starch-heavy diet causes insulin problems and it's those insulin problems that cause the human body to pack on extra fat. Sadly, few have paid much attention to his work, but his ideas are slowly gaining ground. He says that ongoing elevated insulin causes fat cells to become less able to use energy efficiently. Because the fat cells can't release energy as the body needs it, the body has to rely on a constant intake of sugary and starchy foods for its ready energy. So you settle into a daily habit of sugary drinks (including alcohol), sweets, and bread or potatoes with every meal, your body probably stores more fat that it can't later access for energy, and the cycle continues.
Taubes' theory also includes this: once your body can't efficiently use its own energy stores, it starts conserving energy, which makes it not want to physically exert itself. In other words: it's not that people are fat because we don't exercise; we don't exercise because we're fat. The body's inability to use its own fat reserves causes it to decrease its metabolism, which makes us feel tired more easily. This is undoubtedly part of why many fat people really hate exercise: exercising hard (or even not so hard) requires us to fight our own body, forcing it to burn fat it just can't give up. (Here's a good article on Taubes' work with more details.)
How do we work our way out of this dead end? Not by exercising harder. Not by cutting calories so we're only having half our daily amount of sandwiches, cookies and beer. We do it by forgetting all about calories and exercise. We do it by changing the kinds of foods and beverages we put in our bodies.
In 2013, I packed 50 pounds (22 kg) on my five feet two inch (157 cm) frame. I became a short obese woman and didn't feel like moving at all. I cancelled my 11-year gym membership and stopped taking the stairs. I stopped being able to touch my toes and didn't even try. I didn't do any physical activity I didn't feel like doing and even my natural walking pace changed. I moved slowly everywhere I went, even when it was zero degrees outside and I was trying to keep warm.
In the past six months, since I changed what I eat, my energy has started to come back. Drastically reducing all the bread, desserts and sweet snacks has me down about 25 pounds from my high weight and my regular walking pace is back to brisk (I also reduced dairy, all grains and caffeine). My body once again enjoys taking stairs two at a time. I still don't do any physical movement that I don't truly feel like doing, so I haven't resumed my gym membership, but I do some yoga every morning. I've started dancing again. Sometimes I get off the bus a few stops early and walk to where I'm going and it feels good. I am my own evidence that changing diet comes before getting fitter, and getting fitter comes before comfortably increasing exercise.
If physical activity feels too hard for you, get fitter and then add exercise. I suspect the American approach to weight loss has developed a punishing focus on physical activity because we've moralized fitness (as we moralize goddamn everything). We think if you've "let" yourself become fat, you deserve whatever punishment you get and that starts with the physical pain of jogging, sit ups and personal trainers. It's time to move on from that Puritanical mindset and give our nutritionally starved bodies what they need: good food, plenty of water and as much physical movement as feels comfortable. As your body recovers its ability to store and burn fuel normally (be patient), it'll be able to do more. Let your body lead you to the level of exercise it wants, rather than trying to force it to bend to your will. Because really, my fellow Americans: how much good has eating less and exercising more really done for us?
(I like this Taubes article, too, which includes the idea that lean runners aren't lean because they run; they run because they're lean.)