Why Diet and Exercise Are Not the Key to Weight Loss and Health

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What if getting healthy had very little to do with obsessing over what you eat or worrying about how much you exercise? What if you could make weight loss and health automatic? In fact, research shows that is the best way to lose weight and get healthy. You can design a life where health and weight loss are an automatic side effect of your environment.

Changing your behavior is much easier if you set up cues all around you. The less you have to think about it, the easier it is to do. If all you have in the house are raw nuts or crudités for snacks, that’s all you will eat. If I was tired or stressed and I had a bag of my favorite chocolate chip cookies in the cupboard, I would eat the whole bag (even though I know better).

But if I have to drive ten miles to get it, I won’t! It’s really as simple as making the defaults in your environment work for you rather than against you. That can be a challenging task when there is a processed-food and junk-food carnival at every corner, but today I’m going to show you how you can set yourself up for success.

In 2009, longevity expert and bestselling author of Blue Zones Dan Buettner came to a small town in Minnesota with the purpose of changing the structural design of people’s lives to automatically create healthier behaviors. He did this by weaving opportunities to become healthier into the fabric of the community—into schools, workplaces, homes, restaurants, grocery stores, and neighborhoods.

He brought together town and community leaders and other experts to rethink the whole problem of health. It was a community-based solution, all about creating simple changes in the environment that led to big changes in health.

Experts on mindless eating (or the study of how unconscious eating habits make us fat and sick) got people to replace their standard-size plates at home with smaller 10-inch ones. Buettner got people to move the junk food up to hard-to-reach shelves in their homes (or to get rid of it entirely) and place fruit and nuts within easy reach. He convinced grocery stores to label and feature foods that helped promote health and longevity.

He encouraged businesses to replace donuts, candy, and soda with healthier snacks. Restaurants added healthy options to their menus. Transportation experts designed a sidewalk loop around a lake in the middle of town and encouraged “walking school buses” by getting grandparents to walk their grandchildren to school. Dan and his team of experts encouraged people to form moais, the Japanese word for groups of people who support one another for life and walk or exercise together in person instead of “connecting” on social media.

Dan didn’t tell people to exercise more or tell them what to eat. He simply changed their immediate environment. In other words, he restructured the town in such a way as to make it easy for people to do the right thing.

As a result, the town saw a 28 percent reduction in health care costs. Kids were no longer allowed to eat in classrooms or in the hallways at school; overall, they saw a 10 percent decrease in body weight. Dramatic changes happened just by altering the infrastructure. It was a groundbreaking experiment that proved the powerful transformational effect of designing your environment for success.

The key to changing habits is to understand how change really occurs. And for the most part, it occurs by design, not by accident or by wishful thinking. It occurs by transforming the unconscious choices we make every day, shifting them so that the automatic, easy, default choices become healthy choices, not deadly ones.

Stanford professor and social scientist BJ Fogg specializes in creating systems to change human behavior. He calls this behavior design. Fogg explains that in order to change behavior, you need three things: the motivation to change, the ability to change, and the trigger to change. If you want to eat a protein-filled breakfast for energy, then you have the motivation. Now you need the ability and a trigger.

For ability, you need to have the ingredients for the breakfast in your cupboard or fridge ready to go and easy to prepare. You might want to measure out the dry ingredients (nuts, seeds, or protein powder) and even put them in the blender the night before. Think low-friction behavior change, so easy you don’t even notice it.

Next, you need a trigger. Maybe you put the recipe for a protein shake on your fridge, with a big headline: “EAT THIS FOR BREAKFAST.” Maybe you get rid of all the other breakfast options in your house, or put them out of sight so that your hunger becomes the trigger. The point is, you need a catalyst for your new, chosen behavior. You need a built-in nudge that gets you moving in the right direction.

Here’s another example: If you are motivated to do chin-ups but never remember and don’t have a place to do them, they won’t happen. To build in the necessary ability and trigger, you might first purchase a chin-up bar and then install it in your bathroom or bedroom doorway so you see it every time you walk by. With this automatic ability-and-trigger set right in front of you, you will naturally fit in more chin-ups.

The key to success is to intentionally design your environment to make it easy to do the right thing and create health. Our world is a hostile health environment (we live in world of Big Gulps and Big Macs at every turn), so we need to create our own “health bubble.”

Where is your environment set up to help you stay on track and where does it trip you up? What can you do to make your actions automatic around food, exercise, and stress reduction? You can design your life for automatic success.

Strategies for Healthy Life Design

  • Organize your kitchen for healthy meal preparation.
  • Clean out your drawers and cabinets so they are free of clutter.
  • Make sure you have or buy all the cooking utensils you need to succeed.
  • Arrange your pots and pans for easier access.
  • Get smaller plates.
  • Refresh your supply of spices, condiments, oils, vinegars, and sauces so you can cook anything, at any time, without having to run out to the supermarket.
  • Find new recipes online or in cookbooks (such as The Blood Sugar Solution Cookbook) and put them in an easy-to-access place so they are ready when you need them.
  • Stock your kitchen with the right stuff. Arrange the foods so that the healthiest ones are the most accessible and appealing. Cut up veggies and fruit and have them in little glass containers stacked for easy access. Stock healthy snacks (such as nuts, seeds, or grass-fed or organic turkey, beef, or buffalo jerky) so that they are easy to grab on the go when you’re in a hurry.
  • Make your bedroom a sanctuary. Compared to your kitchen, you might not think of your bedroom as an influential area for your health and weight loss efforts, but it is. Is your bedroom designed to be a peaceful, stress-free environment that promotes rest? What prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep? Look around your bedroom and identify three things you can do to make it a place of rejuvenation. Options might include clearing away clutter, getting blackout shades, getting earplugs or an eye mask, or committing to reading instead of watching television before bedtime.
  • Plan your food in advance. Think ahead! The goal is to prevent yourself from ending up in a food emergency in which the only thing open is a fast-food restaurant or convenience store. When do you typically get into that type of situation? Is it at 5 p.m. when you’re too tired to make dinner? When you’re pressed for time between daily commitments and on the run? You can also assemble what I call an Emergency Life Pack to carry with you to ensure you’re never stuck without healthy options.
  • Make grocery shopping a weekly ritual. This goes hand in hand with planning your meals ahead of time. Keep a shopping list at the ready so you can add to it as the week goes along. Choose a specific day and time when you’ll shop each week so it becomes an ingrained ritual.
  • Plant healthy snacks in your environment. Put raw nuts or other healthy snacks in your glove compartment, desk drawer, purse, or backpack so they are within easy reach and allow you to safely bypass the vending machine or drive-through when you’re hungry.
  • Steer clear of your danger zones. If the drive-through you pass each morning on your way to work calls out to you like a siren song, chart another daily route. If the aroma from the bakery you walk past on your way to work is irresistible to you, walk down a different block. Put yourself—literally—on a path to health rather than temptation.
  • Protect your health bubble in social situations. When and with whom do you find yourself feeling pressured or tempted to eat or drink things that work against your health goals? At work when they bring in platters of food and soda for lunch? When you are out with friends? At holidays with family? Eat something before or bring your own food. I always carry nut butter packets in my pocket!
  • Make exercise easy. Identify the top three obstacles that get in the way of your daily exercise. Is it having the clothing you need, clean and easy to access? When the weather is bad? Make a backup plan for your daily walk if the weather is bad (use the treadmill at a gym, try a workout DVD, etc.). Think about systems you can put into place to trigger you to do the right thing. For example, I hate push-ups, but I like showers, so every day before I get in the shower I do forty push-ups (I could only do ten when I started.
  • Keep your supplies for self-nurturing practices at the ready. What three things can you do integrate relaxation practices into your life? Ideas might include keeping your bathroom cabinet stocked with extra Epsom salts, baking soda, and lavender oil, so you always have what you need to take my UltraDetox Bath. Set a timer to remind you to do deep breathing or meditation. Think about what gives you peace and triggers your relaxation response, then set up your defaults so you can do those practices often.
  • Read my latest book, The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet, to find out how you can ignite weight loss and reboot your health in just 10 days.

Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD

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14 Responses to Why Diet and Exercise Are Not the Key to Weight Loss and Health

  1. Dan June 9, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    Dr. Hyman,

    Thanks for this article. I totally agree with your premise that rigging your environment, or stacking the deck in your favor is a major key to success when it comes to personal health and fitness.

    That being said, I find the title to be a bit misleading. I get what you are trying to say, but at the core of it, eating “raw nuts or crudités” is what is directly contributing to your health, is it not? The vehicle is irrelevant. I understand that you are suggesting creating an environment where eating healthy becomes easier, but I think the title of the article may mislead some readers. I think it is important to emphasize that the person who goes out of their way to eat healthy sees the same benefits as the person who sets up their environment so that they can eat healthy without thinking about it.

  2. Profile photo of
    thick2thin June 9, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

    I really appreciate this article. I’ve never thought about taking more control over my environment (outside of the home) in order to help me succeed in my health goals…but it does make sense! Gotta go…have to pack my emergency food kit!

  3. Steve Gannon June 10, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    So…. Diet and exercise ARE in fact the key to weight loss and health!? And the key to following a good diet and exercise program is developing good habits… Your title is a bit deceptive and misleading….

  4. Robert June 10, 2014 at 7:30 pm #

    I think the reason why some people are over-weight or fat – while others who consume and burn about the same number of calories are thin remains a mystery.

    I am in the lucky section of the community, with a healthy appetite and a liking for sugary things and pasta – yet generally thin. A friend who has a smaller appetite than I do is permanently fighting to keep his weight down. Recently, I lost 22 pounds “by accident”. I live in a country where brandy for breakfast is quite normal and alcohol is cheap and I suddenly realised that the alcohol was having a bigger effect on me than in the past.. I virtually stopped drinking alcohol, other than a few beers a week. 4 months later, I bought a weighing machine, thinking I´d lost a bit of weight. When I saw the reading, I was going to take it back to the shop, assuming it to be faulty – then I realised it wasn´t. 700 calories a day in alcohol is equivalent to about 6 pounds a month. Yet, I hadn´t been putting on weight previously – I had been stable at a higher weight. Now, I´m no longer losing weight – I´ve stabilised at about 22 pounds less. It seems pretty strange to me. But I do believe that most people can lose weight quite easily if they really try, without draconian diets.

  5. Shirley Powell June 10, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

    To Dr.Hyman”
    I:ve been on your program for awhile, and tried to lose wt. but I failed miserably. Everything I tried on your diet did not work for me. Now you say diet and exercise does not work. So what does?
    I tried to get rid of my diabetes High BP, Cholesterol, but your Books, your Vitamins, nothing has worked for me. So how can all these other people lose so much wt. and get rid of their diabetes? I really need to know this. Someone has misled me. Like I said nothing has worked for me. I go to the Spa 4 to 5 times a week and do water aerobatic, I have had back Surgery about 3 yrs. ago, so thats the best I can do. So please help me to lose wt. for 3 weeks on your program I lost atonal of 2/2 lbs. thats it. So what do I need to do to lose wt.? I were on your Coaching program with Bridget, she could not help me that was a waste of my time and money, I hope to hear from someone as to what is wrong with me or this program. Thank You
    Shirley

    • Jennifer Hoffman June 11, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

      I am currently a student at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (I will be getting my certificate this summer) and I have a few suggestions. First, there could be some underlining health issue that you are not aware of such as hormonal or thyroid. I would see my general doctor and have blood work done to rule out any other complications. Second, I would keep a food diary for a week to see exactly what I was eating. Sometimes we think we are eating a certain way, but when we actually write it down we see the reality. Last, but not least, how much stress are you under and how much sleep are you getting? Stress and lack of sleep can both contribute to not being able to lose weight. Also, perhaps you can find a “buddy” to do Dr. Hyman’s program with, as support during the program will greatly enhance the outcome. Good luck!

  6. Hera June 10, 2014 at 10:47 pm #

    Can you give me FODMAP recipes for an person with an ILEOSTOMY?
    thank you.

  7. Rita June 10, 2014 at 10:53 pm #

    You lost 2.2 pounds in 3 weeks? That’s 3/4 lb. per week. In a year you will lose
    close to 40 pounds. Keep at it!! It was working, not failing!

  8. Shirley Powell June 12, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

    I thank you for that info. I am up for bld. work, I will let her know about this .Thank you.
    Shirley. I will let you know how it goes.

  9. Wade August 10, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I in finding It truly useful & it helped me
    out a lot. I am oping to give one thing back and
    help others such as you helped me.

  10. jamesheller October 7, 2014 at 6:51 am #

    Firstly, Exercise is one of the most effective strategy of weight loss. We can do cardio exercises, swimming, workouts, gyms etc. Secondly, healthy eating is also the ideal way to stay healthy and fit. All the above things you mentioned about weight loss are very helpful, but the title is of your blog is bit instigate us.

  11. suzan March 11, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

    Hi every body,
    Diet is not about losing weight, it’s about eating right. Read Grain Brain and you will understand Paleo Diet. Sugars cause inflammation, which ages us. Marketing is damage you up. A slice of whole wheat bread is probably the worst thing you can put in your mouth. It’s about putting gas in your engine, not diesel. And yes arthritis is gone, the bags under my eyes are gone and as a side effect, went from 180 to 152. Don’t knock it till you try it. And you have to put the alcohol away.I used to have big problems with lose weight tips, but am getting in better shape now. Here’s a good site I found that really helped. It gave me great methods and and showed me what I was doing wrong before…there’s even lots of free articles on the site…http://www.cavediet.net

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