Let's clarify this point before we dive into the details. Exercise is beneficial, plain and simple. Daily exercise can help relieve stress, decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease, and improve sleep and mood. Exercise is also a great "gateway" activity into other healthy habits. In general, if you exercise on a daily basis, you will be healthier because of it. On the contrary, the concept I wanted to highlight is that you cannot outrun your fork for long-term weight management. I urge us to move beyond our overwhelming messaging around this concept and begin to focus more on improving our food choices.
You can start an intense exercise program to lose weight, such as training for a marathon or completing a century (100 mile) bicycle ride. However, along with increased energy expenditure comes the side effect of increased appetite. As I personally trained for both of these activities, I remember how ravenously hungry I was after my training runs or rides. Our bodies do not like being in a state of energy depletion. Rightfully so, after these types of events you will probably treat yourself with indulgent food items (I sure did), negating a large portion of your expenditure and sometimes all of it. Just think of the foods offered at the finish line of a 5K. Along those same lines, how many times have you heard someone utter "I'm going to have to work out a lot tomorrow to burn off (insert your favorite indulgent food)"? People fail to realize how much energy it takes to negate these indulgent foods. Just to "burn off" one 20-ounce Coke, I would personally need to walk over an hour.
In the first "non-fiction" diet book I read in awhile, The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How To Make Yours Work, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff dissects this concept of outrunning your fork. Dr. Freedhoff cites that dietary choices account for 70 to 80 percent of weight outcome, while only 20 to 30 percent can be contributed to exercise. He emphasizes that even if you adapt to an extreme weight loss exercise plan, there are serious questions regarding how long can you maintain it. You can witness this effect among professional and collegiate athletes struggling with their health and weight after their careers are over. Likewise, contestants of The Biggest Loser often gain some or all of their weight back once the show ends. On a personal side note, I think that show sets awful social standards on how to lose weight.
Studies back up Dr. Freedhoff's claim and show that our current issues with weight stem more from our plates than our lack of movement. An article out of the Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago highlighted that we have had labor saving technology in place since the early 1960s. Technology was already completing most of the intense labor jobs before our BMIs started to increase during the 1980s.
Other research comparing our energy expenditure with other cultures has backed up these points. A meta-analysis of 98 studies, which looked at energy expenditures between developed and industrialized countries, demonstrated that the total energy expenditure and physical activity level does not differ significantly. Even a Northern Tanzania hunter-gather's energy expenditure is the same as an individual from a Western culture. In contrast, while our food supply in America has shifted, other cultures are also struggling with the diet implications of the standard American diet (SAD) and can't outrun their forks either.
We need to disprove the myths that are still perpetuated by companies, which state that sedentary lifestyles are the main cause of our weight issues. To get the biggest bang for our buck in regards to weight maintenance, I hope future campaigns and policies will focus more on food than exercise promotion (SNAP education is sadly transitioning to focus more on exercise). We need to realize that what we put on our plates, or in our bowls and cups, has the greatest impact on our weight management.
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