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Exercise and losing weight

Exercise alone not the key to losing weight

If you increase your activity, your appetite increases and you compensate by eating more food, so with or without increasing physical activity, calorie control remains key to losing or maintaining weight

Although physical activity can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer it does not help you lose weight, according to public health scientists Drs Richard S Cooper and Amy Luke of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. They have been studying the link between physical activity and obesity for years. When they started their research, they assumed that physical activity would prove key to losing weight, but the preponderance of evidence has shown that assumption to be wrong.

"Physical activity is crucially important for improving overall health and fitness levels, but there is limited evidence to suggest that it can blunt the surge in obesity," Drs Luke and Cooper wrote in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

If you increase your activity, your appetite increases and you compensate by eating more food. So with or without increasing physical activity, calorie control remains key to losing or maintaining weight.

"This crucial part of the public health message is not appreciated in recommendations to be more active, walk up stairs and eat more fruits and vegetables," they said. "The prescription needs to be precise: There is only one effective way to lose weight - eat fewer calories."

The food and beverage industry has tried to divert attention from calorie consumption by promoting the theory that lack of physical exercise is a major cause of obesity. For example, the New York Times recently reported that Coca-Cola, the world's largest producer of sugary beverages, "is backing a new 'science-based' solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories."

In their paper, ‘Physical activity does not influence obesity risk: time to clarify the public health message’, they detailed the evidence that physical activity is not key to losing weight. Here are some examples:

  • It's often argued that low obesity rates in Africa, India and China are due in part to strenuous daily work routines. But the evidence does not support this notion. For example, African Americans tend to weigh more than Nigerians. But studies by Dr. Luke and colleagues found that when corrected for body size, Nigerians do not burn more calories through physical activity than African Americans.
  • Numerous clinical trials have found that exercise plus calorie restriction achieves virtually the same weight loss as calorie restriction alone.
  • Observational studies show no association between energy expenditure and subsequent weight change.
  • Extremely small proportions of the US population engage in levels of energy expenditure at a sufficiently high level to affect long-term energy balance.

“In our view, therefore, given the evolving evidence on this crucial aetiological question, the public health community should re-frame the message we communicate about the obesity epidemic, they conclude. “A sophisticated, coherent body of data now supports the transition to a new food environment as the fundamental cause: the ‘time cost’ of food has been lowered, and the inducements to eat high calorie items have increased, leading the susceptible half of the world’s populations to gain 0.5–1 kg per year from age 18 years onward…These messages should be de-coupled and we should focus with great urgency and vigour on the challenge of altering the modern food environment.”

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