Our brain craves attention. Although only roughly three pounds in weight it consumes 20 percent of our body’s energy requirements. We usually think of caloric burning in terms of movement, but we must remember that thinking itself is a form of movement, as it fires motor neurons. Thoughts are hungry beasts.
We call cubicle life a sedentary existence. This is true from the perspective of physical movement. Poor postural habits, shortened hip flexors, lack of core engagement, terrible breathing patterns—all signs of the eight- or nine-hour sitting day. Yet we still require fuel. Given that a trip to the office kitchen provides an opportunity to escape screen glare, overeating is not surprising.
I remember my last corporate job at the Discovery Channel in the late nineties. Two quick midtown Manhattan walks were required each day, one shortly after starting the workday for a caffeine fix, another placed between lunch and the day’s end. While food was not always involved, at times it was part of the ritual. Plenty of opportunities to grab a quick something exist; given the sluggish nature of commercial operations, a carb-loaded sugar rush seemed necessary.
People create all sorts of distractions to eating. One co-worker said that in Jamaica, where she grew up, tea is used to fend off hunger pangs. Recent research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise offers another method: exercise.
An acute bout of interval exercise after mental work resulted in significantly decreased food consumption compared with a nonexercise condition. These results suggest that an acute bout of exercise may be used to offset positive energy balance induced by mental tasks.
To be clear, this study only included thirty-eight college students, and the food of choice was pizza—not exactly the most promising demographic or nutritional choice. University students are easy targets for research though not necessarily reflective of broader populations. While pizza does not offer much in terms of beneficial neurological results (outside of the dopamine rush of loving pizza), it is indicative of what many workers grab on the go.
All students were measured for a baseline of how much pizza they would consume in a normal sitting. At a later date, they spent twenty minutes working through exam-level questions. Half the students then sat for fifteen minutes, while the other nineteen performed interval treadmill sprints for the same amount of time.
Inactive students ended up consuming a hundred more calories than their baseline after thirty-five minutes had passed, while the runners ate twenty-five less. When factoring in caloric expenditure from the treadmill, that number increases to two hundred fewer calories. As the NY Times reports,
Strenuous activity both increases the amount of blood sugar and lactate — a byproduct of intense muscle contractions — circulating in the blood and augments blood flow to the head. Because the brain uses sugar and lactate as fuel, researchers wondered if the increased flow of fuel-rich blood during exercise could feed an exhausted brain and reduce the urge to overeat.
The answer, at least from this small study, is a resounding yes. While more research will likely verify this, such a concept requires little more than common sense. The human body was not designed to sit at right angles for half (or more) of the waking day. An influx of digital information forces our brain to do much of our day’s heavy lifting while our body suffers the consequences. Food, emotional companion that it is, easily becomes an even more important friend, even if the growing overreliance slowly kills us.
There is no silver bullet for comfort snacking. As journalist Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, in order to change neurological patterns, you need to change the routine. His theory is that every habit involves a cue, routine, and reward. In the above study, instead of continuing to sit, students chose to move. The cue and reward remained the same; the routine changed.
Most workers don’t have a treadmill readily available. But you’d be amazed at what a simple walk offers. Those pounds that we claim inexplicable make sense in light of our brain’s energetic greed. Finding ways to move away from the kitchen is one solution to our nation’s growing waistline, and might just lift our mood regarding the daily toil along the way.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.