The Cumberland News ran an article recently in which John Myers, a patient who had lost over nine stone in six months at our clinic, mentioned that our treatment did not involve exercise. The most common question I received following the article was, ‘how is it possible to lose all that weight without exercise?’
As somebody who has battled with his weight for most of his adult life, when I see an overweight person jogging or hitting the running machine in the gym my heart sinks. In the course of my work at the clinic, I hear many stories from patients who have attended boot camps or high-intensity exercise classes where a charismatic genetically gifted personal trainer screams “I’m going to make you work hard, no pain no gain.”
If you were to attend any cardio-based exercise class you would hear a familiar message we’ve been getting for years: As long as you get on that bike or treadmill, you can keep indulging — and still lose weight. It’s been reinforced by doctors, fitness gurus, celebrities, food and beverage companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, and even public-health officials. Countless gym memberships, fitness tracking devices, sports drinks, and workout videos have been sold on this promise.
There’s just one problem: This message is not only wrong, but it’s also leading us astray in our fight against obesity.
Over the last five years since I opened the clinic, I have read through more than 80 studies on exercise and weight loss. I have spoken to countless, nutrition, and obesity researchers. Here’s what I learned;
Despite the current advice, exercise is pretty unhelpful for weight loss. While 100% of the energy we gain comes from food, we can only burn about 10 to 30 percent of it with physical activity each day.
Physical activity seems to set off a cascade of changes that affect how much you eat, how many calories you use, and, in turn, your body weight. How these effects vary among people isn’t clear and is the subject of much scientific debate.
Don’t expect to lose a lot of weight by ramping up physical activity alone. While exercise is hugely important for overall health, how much and what we eat has a much bigger impact on our waistline.
We have an obesity problem. But we shouldn’t treat low physical activity and eating too many calories as equally responsible for it. Public-Health policies should prioritise fighting over-consumption of low-quality food and improving the “food environment”.
So if exercise is not the answer, what actually works for weight loss?
At the individual level, some good research on what works for weight loss comes from the American organisation, the National Weight Control Registry. They have analysed the traits, habits, and behaviours of adults who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a minimum of one year. They currently have more than 10,000 members enrolled in the study, and these people respond to annual questionnaires about how they’ve managed to keep their weight down.
The researchers behind the study found that people who have had success losing weight share a few things in common: They weigh themselves at least once a week. They restrict their calorie intake, stay away from high-fat foods, and watch their portion sizes. They also exercise regularly.
But note: These people use physical activity in addition to calorie counting and other behavioural changes. Every reliable expert I’ve ever spoken to on weight loss says the most important thing a person can do is to limit calories in a way they like and can sustain, and focus on eating healthfully.
In general, a diet with exercise can work better than calorie cutting alone, but with only marginal additional weight-loss benefits.
If you embark on a weight-loss journey that involves both adding exercise and cutting calories, do not count those calories burned in physical activity toward extra eating. You would be better advised to pretend you didn’t exercise at all. You will most likely compensate anyway, so think of exercising just for health improvement but not for weight loss.