One of the risks of being a writer is a tendency to fall into sedentarianism (which isn’t a word, but ought to be; clearly, it refers to a religious belief that the best way to avoid sin is to do as little as possible).
Aside from those keeners who have set up combination desks/treadmills (Arthur Slade, I’m looking at you), a poor choice for those of us who cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, much less walk and type at the same time, most writers do little but sit on their rear ends and tap on a keyboard.
It was therefore with great interest that I read a press release describing a study just published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, which indicates that one key to losing weight might be, not physical exercise, but a writing exercise.
The study was conducted by Christine Logel of Renison University College at the University of Waterloo and Geoffrey L. Cohen of Stanford University.
The researchers recruited 45 female undergraduates who had a body mass index of 23 or higher. A BMI within the range of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal weight; a little more than half of the women (58 percent) fell outside that range and thus would be considered overweight or obese.
Each woman was weighed, and then provided with a list of important values: i.e., creativity, politics, music, and relationships with friends and family members. Each woman was asked to rank the values in the order of how important they were to her.
With that established, half the women were told to write for 15 minutes about whichever value they had ranked most important, while the other half (the control group) were told to write about why a value they personally ranked low might be valuable to someone else.
Between one and four months later, the women came back to be weighed again, and, rather astoundingly, the women who had written about an important value had lost an average of 3.41 pounds, while the women in the control group had (as is typical of undergraduates at university) gained an average of 2.75 pounds.
Why? Well, Logel’s theory is that the women who wrote about values that were important to them felt better about themselves, and that led to better habits: perhaps writing about an important value made a particular woman feel so good that she went home and, for once, didn’t snack; and that, in turn, helped derail a snacking habit that had been contributing to her weight gain.
The results tie in with previous studies that have found that thinking about values, even briefly, can have a big effect. For example, Cohen has used the same technique with minority seventh-graders who were underperforming relative to their white peers. The results: those who did the exercise continued to perform better for years thereafter.
“We have this need to feel self-integrity,” Logel is quoted as saying. “We can buffer that self-integrity by reminding ourselves how much we love our children, for example.”
So does that mean the key to losing weight is as simple as writing about something you value, once, for just 15 minutes?
Naturally, the researchers urge caution, and say it’s too soon to tell. They point out that the women in the study didn’t know that writing about values was supposed to help them live healthier, although they may have twigged, since most psychological studies don’t require a weigh-in.
Logel herself, however, is a firm believer in the benefit of focusing on things of value. She carries a keychain that reminds her of one of her own important values (although the press release doesn’t say exactly what it is, personally, not forgetting my keys is something I value).
And, Logel says, the ultimate goal of all her research along these lines is to find out what people can do to deliberately benefit from this fascinating effect.
In the meantime, she says, “There’s certainly no harm in taking time to reflect on important values and working activities you value in your daily life.”
Personally, I just like the idea of a writing exercise to help you lose weight.
It sure beats that other kind of exercise…although somehow I suspect the panting-and-sweating kind would still be a good idea, too.