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The exercise myth

Date
Pro-active ... exercise to lose fat and gain muscle.

Pro-active ... exercise to lose fat and gain muscle.

It's a message that's got louder over the last few years: exercise doesn't work for weight loss. There was the 2009 Time magazine cover story The Myth about Exercise featuring a photo of a woman pounding a treadmill, her eyes trained on a cream-topped cupcake. It symbolised the story's thrust: research suggesting exercise won't help weight loss because it makes us eat more to make up for the kilojoules we burn. It's a message repeated recently in the new book Big Fat Lies in which author David Gillespie - a lawyer – describes exercise for weight loss as 'pointless'. But is it really true?

No, says David Driscoll - not a lawyer, but an exercise physiologist and sports dietitian - who thinks that exercise deniers, like climate change deniers, don't tell the whole story – they cherry-pick the evidence that suits their message instead.

"The level of physical activity we'd have done a century ago just to get through the day would seem like an extreme sport compared to what most of us do now." 

It's not hard to find research showing exercise does shift weight, especially when it's combined with a leaner diet, says Driscoll, a member of Sports Dietitians Australia. But when studies do find little or no weight loss benefit from exercise, this may have more to do with behaviour than biology.

"Exercise can make us eat more - what's not clear is whether this is because our bodies are demanding the extra fuel or because we think we deserve it," he says. "In studies where people do consume more kilojoules after exercise no one's asked them if it's because of real hunger or because they feel they need a reward for working out. We need to establish this - it's well-known that eating isn't always related to hunger."

If you're in the 'I need a reward' camp – and you wouldn't be alone – knowing more about how many kilojoules you've burned can help.  If you're doing a cardio class at the gym at a moderate intensity, for instance, you're probably burning eight to 12 kilojoules a minute. Over a period of 45 minutes that adds up to between 360 to 540 kilojoules. Based on that, says Driscoll, it makes sense to settle for a small reward – two squares of chocolate not the whole bar.

"Timing an exercise class before a meal is another strategy – you'll be eating anyway and less likely to overcompensate," he says. "Another problem is that some people do a 45-minute gym class and think it means they can do nothing for the rest of the day, but 45 minutes isn't enough. You need to think 'how can I add to this?'"

One way of putting this 45 minutes into perspective is that the level of physical activity we'd have done a century ago just to get through the day would seem like an extreme sport compared to what most of us do now, he says.

When research finds little weight loss from exercise, Driscoll believes it's also important to look at how much fat is shed, not just weight. In some studies people may not lose much weight but they may lose fat and gain muscle – and muscle weighs more than fat.

As for a shining example that diet and exercise do work, there's the US National Weight Control Registry, a project tracking the progress of 10,000 people who've lost an average of 30 kilos and kept it off for over five years – and guess what? Ninety eight per cent of these successful losers report that they changed their diet in some way to lose weight – and 94 per cent increased their physical activity.

So is the exercise-is-useless message a dangerous one?

"It's irresponsible, but it's also a message that some people want to hear and it appeals to people who don't like exercise. But I don't think it will make people who are already exercising stop," says Driscoll. "And in the unlikely event that exercise turned out not to work and actually caused weight gain, the health benefits of physical activity are so great they'd offset the problem of a little extra weight."

Has exercise helped you trim down?

150 comments so far

  • Paula I agree that exercise does not necessarily help you lose weight.
    It is possible to be a fit, fat person (I know many) - who is just as unhealthy as a person who does not exercise.

    If one is fat but exercises, then it is necessary to look at the quality of food eaten: if it is not sufficiently balanced, then weight will not fall. If it is highly processed, weight will not fall. If exercise is not sufficiently vigorous, muscle mass will not increase and fat will not fall.
    The first step in food review is to throw away the "food pyramid" - it is rubbish - and eat fresh food with a minimum of processing and reduced amounts of carbohydrates and fats. In their place, vegetables whole fruits and proteins - the "food block" - should be the rule. Water, should replace sugary drinks or even juices. Alcohol should be minimised.

    I stick to these rules 3/4 of the time, and it seems to work for me and to those whom I have advised ( I have helped many friends lose weight and get into shape).

    Commenter
    Spike
    Date and time
    April 17, 2012, 7:03PM
    • Couldn't have said it better. We may as well end this discussion right here.

      Commenter
      AC
      Location
      Melbs
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 11:01AM
    • "It's not hard to find research showing exercise does shift weight"

      really - can we have the references?

      I have not seen ANY evidence (scientific) that exercise alone can lead to weight loss.

      Commenter
      mish mash
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 11:48AM
    • Hi, suggest you check out PubMed then, e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14718319 -  and note that the sentence actually reads 'it's not hard to find research showing exercise does shift weight, especially when it's combined with a leaner diet."

      Commenter
      Paula
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 12:08PM
    • if you are reducing carbs and doing heavy exercise you are going to suffer,you need carbs for energy,you just have to watch how many carbs you have.
      If you have few carbs and you try high intensity training you will not achieve what you aim for,your body will give up because of lack of fuel,and when you have finished you need to replace the Glycogen your muscles use for energy

      Commenter
      Screamer
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 1:39PM
    • I agree Runner. Different kinds of exercises affect the body differently and running certainly helps regulate the appetite in my experience. It's a good way to both lose weight and maintain a healthy body weight.

      Commenter
      CP
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 4:01PM
    • @mish mash - Exercise may not help with "weight loss" on its own, but it sure can help body composition. Since undertaking a serious excerise regime (without modifying my diet) I've gone from 32% body fat to 26%. I still weigh 63 kgs but my body looks and feels completely different.

      @spike - I agree with 90% of what you've written, but I totally disagree that a "fat, fit" person is just as unhealthy as someone who doesn't exercise. I might still be a little on the "fat" side, but my HDL (i.e. "good") cholesterol has increased markedly since I began exercising consistently and my LDL has fallen. And no, again, I have not modified my diet. So, sure there's room for improvement, and I should clean up my diet, but I'm still a hell of a lot better off than before I started exercising!!

      Commenter
      Lizzieo
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 1:46PM
    • However there is scientific evidence that a lack of movement/exercise will contribute to a huge range of diseases, often leading to premature death (after a lot of suffering).

      Commenter
      Bob
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 2:33PM
    • Screamer: Yes, quite right re carbs. I personally reduce mine or increase depending on how I feel. My point is that one should not eat carbs the way the "food pyramid" says we should!
      Lizzieo: It may be possible that you already eat quite well and exercise has tipped the LDL/HDL balance in your favour. Also, exercise helps lymph move around the body and this helps detoxify. If I may, I'll point you at "Fatland" by Greg Critser. In the book he outlines several studies regarding the active, fat person, although I qualify that perhaps those studies are out of date now.Good work, and good luck!

      Commenter
      Spike
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 7:17PM
    • I'm not downplaying the value of exercise - however there is no scientific studies or research that show exercise ALONE will lead to weight loss.
      The statement should read 'it's not hard to find research showing exercise does shift weight", BUT ONLY if combined with a diet.

      Commenter
      mish mash
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 7:52PM

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