In the last 20 years, the number of overweight children and adolescents has tripled. Adults have fared just as poorly. Currently more than two thirds – almost 70% – of Americans are considered overweight or obese.
But it has very little to do with how much or the types of food we put in our mouths. That is, if you listen to the candy and snack food manufacturers, beverage companies, processed food industry and the fast food restaurants. According to these groups, the reasons why we are so fat are because we are just lazy and sedentary. We don’t exercise enough.
I won’t argue that most of us should be more active. But that is NOT the reason we are so fat. In fact, studies show that exercise is quite ineffective when it comes to weight loss. But more on that in a moment…
This week, I watched the documentary Killer at Large: Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat. In one segment, the filmmakers highlight the government’s efforts in 2007 to address the obesity crisis. President Bush, various legislators and the Department of Health and Human Services were all involved in drafting the government’s statements and recommendations.
But rather than viewing this as an opportunity to improve the nation’s health, the food industry saw it as a threat to their business. They were concerned that the government might recommend eating less processed junk food (Gasp!). So they mobilized their full army of lobbyists to shape the government’s message to their benefit.
The documentary showed clips of their various statements and speeches. Invariably, they denied that the obesity crisis has anything to do with the foods and beverages they market. There is nothing wrong with their foods. The problem is that we are not as active as we should be. Not surprisingly, the government soon adopted the same platform.
But that’s not the only promotional work Shrek was doing that year…
You could also see his lovable ugly mug on packages of Snickers, Skittles, Froot Loops, Pop-Tarts and M&Ms. McDonald’s put his image on their restaurant windows and food bags. Cheetos made a snack that would turn your mouth green. And the Shrek version of Twinkies had a bright green filling.
The obvious message is that all of these foods are fun and fine. Just be sure to get some exercise.
It is no surprise the food companies would broadcast this message. And frankly, it is no surprise that the government played right along. It is just more evidence that the institutions of government have been captured by the industries they are mandated to regulate.
But that is not the only thing wrong with this message…
First of all, studies have shown that physical activity has NOT declined significantly in the last thirty years. We may sit in front of the computer more today, but before that it was the television. And the numbers of people who have gym memberships and participate in workout programs are near all-time highs. Other studies have shown that increased food energy is more than sufficient to explain the U.S. epidemic of obesity. (For references, see the end of this article.)
Beyond that, the role of exercise in weight loss has been wildly overstated. In fact, studies clearly show that exercise is quite ineffective when it comes to weight loss. But it’s even worse than that. If you exercise the way most weight loss specialists, government agencies and medical organizations tell you to, you will probably GAIN weight!
The typical recommendation from these organizations is what I call chronic cardio. For example, in 2007 the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association issued a joint statement recommending “60 to 90 minutes of physical activity” for weight loss. And they did not mean per week… that was per day!
In this article, I will tell you why exercise is not the key to weight loss. And I will show you why the wrong kind of exercise (chronic cardio) will actually undermine your weight loss efforts. But before I do, I want to make something clear…
I am a strong advocate for exercise. The health and emotional benefits of regular exercise are undeniable. Countless studies show that exercise (even low-level exercise) will dramatically reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It helps to alleviate chronic pain. It will improve your mental health and cognitive ability. It improves your energy, stamina and longevity. And the list goes on. So you SHOULD exercise.
Just don’t expect it to work wonders when it comes to fat loss…
The problem with long-duration cardio, in particular, is that while it burns calories, it can also make you ravenously hungry. And not only does cardio exercise make us hungrier. It also makes us feel as if we are entitled to make bad food choices. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “Well, I deserve this [insert decadent dessert here]. I worked out today.”
Studies clearly show that people who exercise more tend to eat more.
One study of 538 students, published in the International Journal of Obesity found that when kids start to exercise, they eat more – an average of 100 calories more than they burned during exercise. Talk about getting “stuck on a treadmill.”
The problem is that it can take only minutes to consume far more calories than you burn during exercise. It takes about 5 minutes to eat a few slices of pizza and wash it down with a tall glass of coke, for example. That’s about 1,000 calories. Now consider what it would take to burn off those calories.
The table below shows how many calories a 130 pound person and a 190 pound person would burn engaged in various physical activities.
As you can see, even the most strenuous activity levels are no match for poor food choices and an overactive appetite. When you consider that you would have to burn 3,500 calories to lose just one pound of fat, it becomes clear that exercise is NOT the most important part of the equation.
To burn that number of calories would require about five hours of full court basketball for an average man! That might sound fun, but I can think of better ways to lose weight (which I’ll tell you about in a moment).
Take a look again at the table above, and consider what you would have to do to burn off the energy consumed in these foods:
It really puts into perspective the claims of fast food and junk food manufacturers that we are fat simply because we don’t exercise enough.
Studies confirm that exercise alone is not effective for weight loss…
In one study, published by the Public Library of Science, LSU researchers randomly assigned 464 overweight, non-exercising women to four different groups. Women in three of those groups worked out with a personal trainer for 72 minutes, 136 minutes and 194 minutes per week for six months. The fourth group maintained their usual level of physical activity. All of the women were asked not to change their dietary habits (but to record what they ate).
The study showed that women in all of the groups lost weight. But the women who worked out with a trainer several days a week for six months lost only slightly more than the women in the control group. And many of the women in the exercise groups actually gained weight.
Probably the most comprehensive study of the impact of exercise on weight loss was performed by researchers known as the Cochrane Collaboration. Their review included 43 studies. The average amount of exercise prescribed in these studies was 45 minutes, three to five days a week. The studies lasted from three to 12 months.
The studies that compared diet alone to exercise alone showed that the ‘dieters’ lost between 6 and 30 pounds, while the ‘exercisers’ lost between 1 and 9 pounds. Other studies in this review compared the effect of diet and exercise with diet alone. These studies showed the average weight loss for diet and exercise combined was 8 to 39 pounds. The groups that focused on exclusively on diet lost between 5 and 37 pounds.
Many other studies with various methodologies suggest the same results: Exercise alone is quite ineffective for weight loss. And in many cases, it can actually be counterproductive.
None of this is meant to suggest that exercise is not important to your health. It is extremely effective and beneficial for improving just about every measurable risk factor for disease.
And in fact, the right kind of exercise can help a great deal with fat loss and body composition. So what is the “right kind” of exercise? I would suggest that it is the same kind of exercise our biological ancestors engaged in for thousands of years…
That would include lots of moving around at a low level of exertion… occasionally lifting heavy things… and occasionally exerting ourselves near our maximum capacity for short periods of time.
The way to model this in the modern world is to walk frequently and often. Sprint occasionally. And lift weights or engage in other resistance and weight-bearing exercises times per week. Further detail is beyond the scope of this article, but I believe Dr. Sears’ PACE Program is an excellent and highly effective way to exercise for health and fat loss. His book contains a treasure of information as to why this is so.
But the bottom line is that exercise is only part of the equation, when it comes to weight loss – probably no more than 80% of it. It is what you eat – not how hard you try to work it off – that matters.
So what should you eat?
The diet we recommend is one that is rich in protein and healthy fats. These foods keep you full and satisfied for longer, they stimulate muscle growth, and they do very little to boost blood sugar and insulin (the fat storage hormone). Your carbs should come from low-glycemic sources like whole fruits and vegetables.
The mainstream mantra for weight loss is: Eat less and exercise more.
Your mantra should be: Eat better and exercise smarter.
To Your Health,