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Weight Loss and Exercise

Weight Loss and Exercise: What’s the connection?

Exercise and weight lossWhen I ask patients what they are doing to lose weight, 99% of the time they begin by telling me how much they are exercising. I think that is because the prevailing notion is that if you want to lose weight, you have to exercise a lot.

That is simply not true.

Five years ago, 45 million Americans belonged to health clubs, almost double that in 1993. And at a cost of about $19 Billion! Yet in spite of all that money spent, 1/3 of Americans are obese, and another 1/3 are overweight. What is wrong with this picture? Why isn’t all this exercise making us thinner?

The fact of the matter is exercise generally does NOT work for weight loss. The cover article of Time magazine in August 2009 is called The Myth of Exercise and goes into detail as to why this is so.

Quoting from the Time article: “…the past few years of obesity research show that the role of exercise in weight loss has been wildly overstated.”

“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…”

The Time article goes on to say that early in 2009, a remarkable study came out of LSU that was supervised by a colleague of Ravussin’s, Dr. Timothy Church, who holds the rather grand title of chair in health wisdom at LSU.

Church’s team randomly assigned into four groups 464 overweight women who didn’t regularly exercise. Women in three of the groups were asked to work out with a personal trainer for 72 min., 136 min., and 194 min. per week, respectively, for six months. Women in the fourth cluster, the control group, were told to maintain their usual physical-activity routines. All the women were asked not to change their dietary habits and to fill out monthly medical-symptom questionnaires.

Eating a donut, weight loss and exericse The findings were surprising. On average, the women in all the groups, even the control group, lost weight, but the women who exercised–sweating it out with a trainer several days a week for six months–did not lose significantly more weight than the control subjects did. (The control-group women may have lost weight because they were filling out those regular health forms, which may have prompted them to consume fewer doughnuts.) Some of the women in each of the four groups actually gained weight, some more than 10 lb. each.”

The basic reason seems to be that exercise stimulates hunger. Since hardly anyone counts calories successfully, people simply don’t realize that when they are exercising to lose weight, they are actually compensating by eating more.

One of the things I tell my patients is that it is a lot easier to eat 200 calories less (e.g. 2/3 of a sesame seed bagel or 3 eggs) than it is to exercise to burn 200 calories (e.g. about 30 minutes of aerobics for a 155# person). So, even IF exercise was the key to weight loss, why choose it over calorie restriction for weight loss? Bottom line is, while exercise is good for you in other ways, losing weight is not really one of them.

Dr William EpperlyDr. William Epperly, Fellow American Academy of Family Practice
Fellow American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy
Member of Christian Medical and Dental Society