Saturday, August 08, 2009

Why Exercise Doesn't Necessarily Help One Lose Weight

I had been pleased with myself for surpassing my weekly fitness goal: 2.5 miles in the pool and 2.5 hours on the Wii® Fit. (I've swam 2.8 miles and spent 2 hours and 44 minutes on the Fit, and Saturday isn't over yet.) Then I checked the mail and found this story on the cover of this week's Time magazine. Here's a highlight:

"In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless," says Eric Ravussin, chair in diabetes and metabolism at Louisiana State University and a prominent exercise researcher. Many recent studies have found that exercise isn't as important in helping people lose weight as you hear so regularly in gym advertisements or on shows like The Biggest Loser — or, for that matter, from magazines like this one.

The basic problem is that while it's true that exercise burns calories and that you must burn calories to lose weight, exercise has another effect: it can stimulate hunger. That causes us to eat more, which in turn can negate the weight-loss benefits we just accrued. Exercise, in other words, isn't necessarily helping us lose weight. It may even be making it harder.

In short, people who engage in short bursts of vigorous exercise are likely to recover with high calorie drinks and snacks and long periods of inactivity. The article makes the point that half of a muffin or a bottle of Gatorade® can negate all the calories burned after a 20 minute run or a few miles on the elliptical machine. Even those who resist the temptation to celebrate their morning bike ride with a plate of pancakes and a two-hour nap may find themselves eating more and moving less during the remainder of the day than they would have if they hadn't spent the morning cycling.

Still, the article acknowledges that regular physical activity is essential to weight loss:

The problem ultimately is about not exercise itself but the way we've come to define it. Many obesity researchers now believe that very frequent, low-level physical activity — the kind humans did for tens of thousands of years before the leaf blower was invented — may actually work better for us than the occasional bouts of exercise you get as a gym rat.

I would like to think that I do pretty well in this regard. I always take the stairs, I do my own yard work, and I'm an obsessive cleaner who lives with three small children and six cats.

My problem is food. It always has been. Even as a vegetarian who drinks zero-calorie soft drinks, I find plenty of ways to include high-calorie and high-fat foods in my diet. And the fat- and calories-per-serving of the food I eat is less of an issue than the number of servings that I consume.

I had hoped that by exercising I could avoid confronting my food problem. But that strategy has never worked, and it's become clear to me that it never will.


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