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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Dispatch from the "Figure That Out All By Yourself, Einstein?" file
Posted by Jill | 9:55 PM
Anyone who's ever done the "diet and exercise" thing in the hope of getting and staying thin knows that for those of us who do NOT eat donuts and do NOT eat fast food and do NOT gorge on candy bars and can walk the 2.56 mile loop around the lake that ends in a 30-degree uphill climb in only a minute more than it took us 14 years and twenty pounds ago, the whole diet and exercise equation doesn't work.

But it's surprising to see it in a mainstream publication:
"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.


Last year the International Journal of Obesity published a paper by Gortmaker and Kendrin Sonneville of Children's Hospital Boston noting that "there is a widespread assumption that increasing activity will result in a net reduction in any energy gap" — energy gap being the term scientists use for the difference between the number of calories you use and the number you consume. But Gortmaker and Sonneville found in their 18-month study of 538 students that when kids start to exercise, they end up eating more — not just a little more, but an average of 100 calories more than they had just burned.

If evolution didn't program us to lose weight through exercise, what did it program us to do? Doesn't exercise do anything?

Sure. It does plenty. In addition to enhancing heart health and helping prevent disease, exercise improves your mental health and cognitive ability. A study published in June in the journal Neurology found that older people who exercise at least once a week are 30% more likely to maintain cognitive function than those who exercise less. Another study, released by the University of Alberta a few weeks ago, found that people with chronic back pain who exercise four days a week have 36% less disability than those who exercise only two or three days a week.

But there's some confusion about whether it is exercise — sweaty, exhausting, hunger-producing bursts of activity done exclusively to benefit our health — that leads to all these benefits or something far simpler: regularly moving during our waking hours. We all need to move more — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says our leisure-time physical activity (including things like golfing, gardening and walking) has decreased since the late 1980s, right around the time the gym boom really exploded. But do we need to stress our bodies at the gym?

I've long had a theory that if a given individual's body is designed to store fat, and if extreme calorie reduction just makes it hang onto weight that much harder, burning more calories is just going to make your body demand more calories to compensate for what you're burning.

I enjoy a good, long walk. And I don't just stroll leisurely, either. Because I'm short, I've always had to walk fast just to keep up with other people. I feel better when I stay active; when I take the steps instead of the elevator (and yes, I can run up 2 flights of 21 steps each without getting winded). But I know full well that spending every hour I'm not at work in a gym is not going to turn me into a size two.

I wonder also how much of the health problems associated with obesity are because we are too afraid to go to doctors for anything, because every doctor in the world is going to tell us to lose weight without having any information whatsoever about how to do so successfully. When you've made it to the age of 54 without being thin, and you can work rings around people who are half your age, it's kind of hard to say that my energy level would be better if I was thinner, or that I'd be healthier if I was thinner.

Of course even this article assumes that if you are hungrier because of exercise you will eat cake or donuts. I usually find that when I get done with exercise, what I want to pig out on is a pint of blueberries.

I guess that makes me a fatass glutton.


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Anonymous Bill said...
I lost 30 pounds within a year; from 193 to 163 at 6 feet tall.

I used two websites and made a game of it.

First I used this one:

Then I used this one:

applied discipline, and weighed myself every morning.

I, more than anyone, was very surprised it worked so well.

Blogger Bob said...
Letterman has been weighing stagehand George Clarke on his show every few months. George has been on seemingly rational diet plan by Dr. Lou Aroni. But I think George has bottomed out. He started out looking like a guy who had been eating a lot of cheese doodles, cinnibuns, & candy bars for years, casually & thoughtlessly. He was slob fat. Once he started thinking about what he was eating, & agreed to being weighed on the show, he stopped eating the shit, & that's the weight he lost. He'll never be thin & trim. I used to know a woman with an eating disorder who had become obese, & she was always looking for the magic plan, you know, the plan that requires a total change of lifestyle & attitude & always fails. But I couldn't make her get rid of the butter & half & half in her fridge. She had a vision of herself as she was in college, when she was probably bulemic, as I recall how she looked then. She was stuck in an either/or trap.