And, no, you can’t just exercise all that candy away

Also, really enjoyed this Vox feature on the limits of exercise in losing weight.  Exercise is awesome and definitely helps keep you healthy, but although calories in/calories out really does matter, the calories in is ultimately the far more important (and controllable) portion of the equation.  Here’s the infographic summary:

Well worth reading the whole thing.  Among the most interesting parts is the research on the “calories out:

Based on the research, Pontzer has proposed a new model that upends the the old “calories in, calories out” approach to exercise, where the body burns more calories with more physical activity in a linear relationship (also known as the “additive” model of energy expenditure).

He calls this the “constrained model” of energy expenditure, which shows that the effect of more physical activity on the human body is not linear. In light of our evolutionary history — when food sources were less reliable — he argues that the body sets a limit on how much energy it is willing to expend, regardless of how active we are.

“The overarching idea,” Pontzer explained, “is that the body is trying to defend a particular energy expenditure level no matter how active you get.”

Meanwhile, since this is Vox, the policy angle:

9) The government and the food industry are doling out unscientific advice

Since 1980, the obesity prevalence has doubled worldwide with about 13 percent of the global population now registering as obese, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, nearly 70 percent of the population is either overweight or obese.

A lack of exercise and too many calories have been depicted as equal causes of the crisis. But as researchers put it in an article in BMJ, “You cannot outrun a bad diet.”

Since at least the 1950s, Americans have been told that we can. This Public Health Reports paper outlines the dozens of government departments and organizations — from the American Heart Association to the US Department of Agriculture — whose campaigns suggested more physical activity (alone or in addition to diet) to reverse weight gain.

Unfortunately, we are losing the obesity battle because we are eating more than ever. But the exercise myth is still regularly deployed by the food and beverage industry — which are increasingly under fire for selling us too many unhealthy products.

And here’s the final weight loss advice:

If you embark on a weight-loss journey that involves both adding exercise and cutting calories, Montclair’s Diana Thomas warned not to count those calories burned in physical activity toward extra eating.

“Pretend you didn’t exercise at all,” she said. “You will most likely compensate anyway so think of exercising just for health improvement but not for weight loss.”

For the record, in my N of 1, I totally count the exercise (though not calorie counting today with all those mini Twix to come) and I have consistently lost weight whenever I have calorie counted.  I’ve even been known to go for a run for the explicit purpose of enjoying dessert later.  Anyway, the overall point still holds.  Be sensible and focus on calories in.  And exercise, because being healthy is good.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to And, no, you can’t just exercise all that candy away

  1. Nicole K. says:

    I agree that losing weight is pretty much 100% about eating less calories. When my narcolepsy was at it’s worst and all I did for the most part was sleep and eat, I got up to near 300 pounds and had a waistline in the middle 40’s. Once I started thinking clearly again, I was able to drop down to around 180 and a 33 inch waistline in about 6 months.

    I basically eat between 1,700 and 2,300 calories everyday. I do this by only eating once or sometimes twice a day. Granted, I take a ton of stimulants which suppress my appetite, but I took a ton of stimulants when I was really fat too. I just decided that I would limit the amount of calories going into my body in a day, and I stuck to it. Weight control hasn’t been an issue for me since.

    When I was learning to walk I tended to walk on my toes, which shrunk my hamstrings to the point that it’s physically impossible for me to run. It was basically like I walked around in muscle shoes all the time when I was little, so excersises like running or jogging are pretty much impossible for me. I’d have to spend hours daily doing stretches that I got from a physical therapist if I ever wanted to be able to run. I did them long enough when I was a teenager to get my heels to actually make contact with the ground most of the time, so I don’t wear out the front soles of my shoes like I did when I was a kid, but I still can’t run. So if aerobic exercise was necessary to lose weight, I’d still be as big as a house.

    I think the tendency to walk on toes as a young kid must have some genetic component to it. My cousin had the same problem, but her pediatrician caught it when she was very young. She wore leg braces for a year or so to fix it. Now she likes to do distance running.

    • Steve Greene says:

      David has a huge problem with that! Spent a year in special orthotic braces that forced him to walk on his heels. He regressed some afterwards, with walking, but unlike before, he can easily walk on heels when reminded. He does run just fine, though.

      • Nicole K. says:

        Yeah, I wish it would have been caught when I was little. But my dad was a military officer, and our healthcare was on base back then. Quality was not job one. Before I worked on stretching my hamstrings in middle and high school, my calf muscles were huge. But I got so much crap about walking like an idiot in jr high school that I really worked hard on those stretches so I could walk more normally. It still wasn’t enough to make me able to run though. I guess it’s one of those things you really need to catch early.

        But until we moved and the kids at my new jr high (I actually did go to a public jr high and not a middle school) started making a big deal about it, I had no idea that I wasn’t walking properly. I just thought for some reason I couldn’t run, which meant I pretty much avoided any type of organized sporting activity because I couldn’t do it without basically humiliating myself.

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