Want to lose weight without the pain? Try a little instability

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Mar 3, 2010

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every single human in possession of good fortune still must be in want of a better body. They want to be toned, curvy, thin, voluptuous, have six-pack abs, the list goes on and on. Few are content with their shape and those who are tend to be geriatrics. Mostly, people want to be thin. Even Michelle Obama has got on the bandwagon by calling obesity an American national epidemic.

I want to lose weight too. Except that I want to do it without sweating. To me, there is something counterintuitive about going to a gym to do the kind of thrusting and pushing activities that our hunter-gatherer ancestors abandoned aeons ago. Evolutionarily speaking, there has got to be a better way to lose the flab. After decades of research fuelled by giant bags of Kettle chips, I am happy to report that I have come up with two ways to lose weight without doing a darn thing. I am sitting on one solution and wearing the other.

As I type this, I am balanced on a giant ball the colour of a scalded tomato. It is called an exercise ball but I use it as a chair in front of my computer console. The thing about this exercise-ball-chair is that I am permanently on the verge of falling off. It is constantly rolling and, consequently, my “core” (as those exercise fiends like to call it) is making adjustments. It is somewhat like a belly dancer in slow motion sitting upon a chair on steroids.

I am moving, and typing, and moving, and typing, which you might say explains the prose. After two weeks on this contraption, I can report a few things. One, getting up from a ball is different from getting out of a chair. With a chair, you push back and rise. Try that with a ball and you will fall backwards on the floor. Your kids will pity you and your dog will lick your nose. Far better to rise in a gentle upright fashion, which segues nicely to my next tool.

These days I pad around the house wearing black Masai Barefoot Technology (MBT) shoes. No kidding. Google “MBT shoes” and check if you like. I first saw my pair of “Tunisha” MBTs at a store called The Walking Company in Naples, Florida. They stand about twice as high as normal sneakers with an undulating underside. When I first put them on, my husband asked if I was wearing prosthetics. In other words, MBTs aren’t your average stiletto. Walking on them, though, is a breeze. The Swiss founder of MBT wanted to imitate the motion of a Masai tribesman walking barefoot across the soft, uneven earth of the Masai Mara.

It is a seductive idea because the Masai have to be one of the most graceful people on earth; that is ultimately what sold me on these shoes. Have you ever seen a fat Masai? I haven’t. Actually, I haven’t seen a Masai at close quarters at all, come to think of it, but even on TV you never see a fat one. For the last two months, I have been wearing these MBTs non-stop because of what I read on their website. Quoting extensive studies, which I haven’t verified, the company says that the rolling gait that comes from wearing MBT shoes improves posture, solves knee problems, strengthens the spine and tightens the buttocks and thighs. Oh, and it helps you lose weight as you walk. You get my point.

Dieting without the diet. Exercising without the exercise. The company calls it the “anti-shoe”. At about $250 (Dh920) a pair, MBTs are more than double what you’d pay for good running shoes. Other brands also market shoes along the same lines. Reebok recently launched its “Easytone”, similar to MBTs but costing less. Earth Footwear has its “Exerwalk” line that retails for about $99. All of them use a concept called “natural instability”, which usually applies to financial markets.

The physiological explanation suggests that if you walk barefoot on uneven but soft ground, your body will make constant adjustments to this natural instability and use more muscles in the process. In urban areas however, we wear flat shoes on flat concrete ground, negating our body’s ability to contract all those small supportive muscles in response to natural instability. At least, that’s the argument anyway.

So does it work? I think so. Between the ball and the chair, I am feeling pretty toned. Nothing too obviously visible but my jeans don’t cut off my air supply anymore. For someone who doesn’t do a jot of exercise, that’s an improvement, wouldn’t you say? The added benefit is that both the ball and the shoe are the tipping point to exercise, and that in the end is really my secret weapon. Picture this scenario: you are standing, waiting for the elevator and your unstable shoe is making you sway from side to side. How hard can it be to increase that sway to a side stretch? That’s what ends up happening, both while sitting on the ball and while walking around in my MBTs. I stretch during the course of the day, pretty much unconsciously and without much of a production. It is, in a way, exercise nirvana. Or lack thereof.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary, a memoir about growing up in South India

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