Photo: Hugh Kretschmer
You want to exercise more. But rain, fatigue, looming deadlines, and bad sneakers (that's right—blame the sneakers) get in your way. What is really going on? Why do dieters falter and armchair athletes remain seated? Turns out it's not about "weakness." (We can all stop beating up on ourselves right now!) And what we're learning about the brain points to new strategies that will really—finally!—make all the difference.
Nora Volkow wants my chocolate. I'm sitting at a round conference table in her large-windowed office at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, where she's the director. Volkow is telling me about her research into the neurology of eating and how, for some people, quitting foods—like, say, chocolate—can be as hard as kicking heroin is for a junkie. Food, she says, hooks people by triggering the exact chemical reactions triggered in the brain by hard drugs. Or nicotine.
Or alcohol. Or shopping. Or sex.
"I can't stop looking at your chocolate," Volkow says, her eyes darting from me to the chocolate and back. It's a Hershey's Kiss Volkow's secretary gave me moments earlier. I took it with a smile and a thank you, but I'm one of the few women in the world who actually don't like chocolate. So I bit off the tip to be polite, put the rest back in its metallic wrapper, and slid it onto the table next to my notebook. This makes Volkow uncomfortable, which isn't what I expected.
Most articles about Volkow focus on her childhood in Mexico City. They say, "Isn't it amazing she was raised in the same house where Stalin had her great-grandfather—Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary—murdered with an ice ax?" They talk about how Volkow started medical school at 18, then went to the United States and became one of the nation's leading research psychiatrists. But to me, the most fascinating thing about Volkow is the fact that she—the head of the country's national drug abuse agency—is not just a chocolate junkie. She's also a chocolate pusher. Volkow paces back and forth in her Bethesda, Maryland, office—frizzy hair bouncing, black knee-high boots clacking—then stops, narrows her eyes, and grins. "I have some good stuff," she says, reaching into her desk drawer. "Seventy-seven percent pure cocoa." She throws a quarter-eaten bar on the table next to me. "Go ahead," she says, "have some." I tell her no thanks, and she raises her eyebrows.
"I do experiments with people," she says. "I put the chocolate there and see how long it takes them to pick it up." She shakes her head. "I am very bad with chocolate. I take it immediately. I fail my own test. But you," she says, pointing at my Kiss, "you have very good inhibitory control!" This makes me laugh, because if she'd offered cheesecake or Swedish Fish, I wouldn't have lasted five seconds.
But my problem isn't food; it's exercise and the fact that I seem incapable of doing it. No matter how many times I join a gym or buy new workout clothes or make workout dates with friends, I simply don't exercise. I've always got good reasons: I'm too busy, it's raining, I need better shoes, there's no gym in my neighborhood. I have a deadline, a headache, or cramps; it's too hot or too cold, running hurts my feet, weights are heavy...I could go on. The rational part of my brain knows I should exercise: I've read articles saying it prevents nearly every human disease, fights depression, and strengthens the immune system. I hear it reduces stress and anxiety, that it helps you focus and sleep and have better sex. I want all that—who doesn't? But apparently, another part of my brain—which happens to be the dominant part—wants everything to stay exactly as it is.
And clearly, I'm not alone. At this point, it's common knowledge that the leading causes of death in the United States—heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers—are largely preventable through behavior change. Hundreds of thousands of people wake up each January 1 and say, "Starting today, I'm going to diet/exercise/quit smoking/taking drugs/gambling/whatever." They try, often very hard, but most fail.
We Hear You!