The exercise vs. junk food conundrum

Exercise and junk food lie on the opposite ends of several spectrums: healthy living, the amount of guilt they induce, calorie balance charts, instant vs. delayed gratification and so on. Exercise invariably ends up on the beneficial side.

However, we also have very different inclinations towards exercise and junk food. The word ‘temptation’ brings to mind cakes, sweets, and specific chocolate brands. Nobody associates temptation with exercise. To investigate further, let us define a ‘tendency function’ – a quantification of how likely we are to reach for something at this moment. Our tendency function is low for exercise and high for junk food.

But why is that so? If evolution is a continuous process of perfecting something, why does it seem to screw us over here?

Firstly, there is the problem of the rates of change – the rate at which our species changes, vs. how fast we are changing the world around us. We are all born with hardware, whose last major release happened 70,000 years ago. Subsequently, our bodies have changed very little. Every healthy baby born today is suited to lead the life of a hunter gatherer in the African Savannah.

And then, there is the matter of supply. In the world of hunter gatherers, rich food was in short supply, and exercise was available in plenty. One had to trek several kilometers to grab a handful of nuts, to chase down an antelope for its liver or harvest a honeycomb, while competing with squirrels, leopards and bears respectively. Therefore, our bodies evolved to prefer exercise much lesser than its rewards, while requiring plenty of it. Our tendency functions were defined accordingly. If it was wired the other way around, we would have run forever before dying of exhaustion.

In recent times, all that has changed. In just the last two centuries, we have transformed the world into a place that is futuristic for anybody older than 20. Today,  rich food, which has acquired the term junk food, is mass manufactured and available in plenty. There is no shortage of burgers, nougat….and cake! We live in a world that would make Mary Antoinette proud.

The problem is that our natural rate of change can no longer keep up. Our tendency functions still retain their default values for rich food and exercise.

And this is the curse that we inherit as humans in the 21st century. We are burdened to rewrite our 70,000-year-old tendency function. Our goal is to learn to avoid junk food which is available in plenty, and replace it with exercise, which we need in plenty. It is important to realize that this is not our fault – we did not choose to be born into such circumstances. Nevertheless, it is a daunting challenge that we are forced to contend with.

And you have my best wishes in responding to it in your own way.


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