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Is Your Clutter Making You Fat?

a cluttered room
Robert Huffstutter via flickr


Peter Walsh is an expert on getting rid of clutter. Yet, for those who hold on to their mess, he says it’s never really about the stuff: there is an emotional component to hoarding. A number of studies have found links between hoarding behavior and obesity, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. One study found a genetic variation associated with obesity was also present in compulsive hoarders.

But there’s hope for those with a clutter problem. Walsh says that many of his clients reported that after they de-cluttered their space, they felt better, made healthier choices, and started slimming down. In his new book Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight, Walsh presents a plan combining de-cluttering, weight-loss and mindfulness strategies. Read on for a condensed interview or click below to listen to the full conversation.

On evidence of the connection between clutter and health:

We began to discover, by speaking with academics and researchers that in homes where there is a higher incidence of clutter, there is a much greater chance of people struggling with obesity or their weight, and that there is a much higher level of stress in those homes, and that seems to contribute much more to a whole lot of physical, mental and lifestyle problems, one of which is weight.

We spoke to probably ten experts across the country on clutter. [Including] the leading expert, David Tolin, and Randy Frost . The jury is still out, but I think the research is tending very much towards supporting my anecdotal evidence.

What I see is when people come home at the end of the day when they're not organized, when their home is not supporting their health and wellness goals, -- when they put the key in the door, if that is the moment that they start thinking about their health choices, their meal, then inevitably they will default to the easy choice. And the easy choice at that stage is either packaged food, which is not the healthiest choice, or much more often, take-out meals.

On his six-week plan to cut clutter and shed pounds:

Each week looks at a different room in your house to help you basically kick-start getting rid of the stuff that is impeding you or dragging you down, or cluttering your space.

I've worked with dietitians to develop a very simple meal plan that covers six weeks: healthy choices for every meal, that situate you pretty much within the 1400 calorie-a-day level.

There's an exercise plan, developed by an exercise physiologist, based initially around walking and using just the objects that you have in your home to increase flexibility and get you moving.

And then there's a mindfulness component. And that level of mindful meditation or being focused and very concretely in-the-moment is a strong component here.

We ran a test panel of 25 people through the program, just to see how it would work, and the results were pretty amazing. We saw an average weight loss of about ten pounds. The most weight lost in the six-week period was 20 pounds, and a decrease in waist size of about 3 inches. In the six months since we ran the test panel, most of those people have gone on to lose more weight; in some cases up to 50 pounds total, and kept their home de-cluttered and organized.

On why we hold on to clutter:

What I see in people's homes is, people struggle either with what I call "memory clutter" - that's the stuff that reminds them of an important person, or achievement or event in the past. Or they struggle with what I call "I might need it one day" clutter.

It's really fascinating to me, and this has not been pursued, but the idea of memory clutter is that it reminds us very much and holds us in the past,  and "I might need it one day" is stuff that holds you or propels you very much into the future. And I think it’s a very interesting coincidence that anxiety is very often described as an undue preoccupation with the future, and depression is described as an undue and maudlin concern with the past.

On how to decide which items to hold on to:

If you're holding on to everything memory-wise, when everything is important, nothing is important. Here’s a simple technique: find the "five treasures" - the five most important things, in terms of memory stuff. Display them in a place in your home that treats them with honor and respect. Then, make judicious choices about letting the other stuff go.