In one of my graduate courses, we are given forums to discuss certain topics related to weight management. This weeks forum topic was on physical activity and weight loss.
The forum accompanies a lecture which relevant statistics are provided and why some information in this post is not explained.
Thoughts on physical activity and weight loss
We can probably all agree that exercise is a good way to burn a few extra calories but dietary intervention makes a much stronger impact.
Even personal trainers recognize their clients won't make any progress if they don't change their diet. Working with a personal trainer and a dietitian is a dream team :o)
Calorie density is probably the biggest reason why exercise is not as influential on weight loss. Honestly, I'm pretty amazed at how quickly I can down a tablespoon (or two?) of peanut butter after a grueling...3, 4 mile run?
That's another point to make. Estimating calories is very inaccurate, whether in or out. On the intake side, portions are usually under estimated and even nutrition labels are sometimes slightly inaccurate due to the rounding that is permitted by the FTC. We're also subject to false information when we step on a cardio machine at the gym. I might read "600 calories" burned, but how accurate is that, really? (I've heard up to 30% inaccurate, but never looked it up myself).
I was not surprised at all when physical activity alone didn't result is greater weight loss than diet alone, for the same reasons I explained above. It is just too easy to take in calories and really difficult to burn them. Our bodies compensate and try to be efficient during exercise. We slow our running pace, we don't jump as high, we don't lift as many reps etc. But our bodies don't "slow us down" like this when we are eating. We are designed to store fat.
I was surprised that PA alone resulted in such little weight loss however. I assumed increased muscle mass? But those studies that yielded that result might have been purely aerobic/cardio exercise, so I'm not sure. I also thought it was interesting in the PowerPoint when I read "Humans are designed for movement". While I absolutely agree, it's truly ironic that we're able to store a seemingly endless amount of adipose but our bodies will plummet if we expend too many calories. Starvation can kill us, but excess calories alone will not (it is the diseases that come from excess intake, not the intake itself).
Media's portrayal of the role of physical activity in weight status
Media's portrayal of physical activity in weight status is nothing short of disappointing, in my opinion. Physical activity is promoted when it can sell something... a piece of workout equipment, a cool wearable pedometer. The health benefits of physical activity are never the "seller". Good looks and material items are the major reasons why physical activity gets promoted.
Also, it's questionable because I know some promotion of physical activity was a tactic driven by the food industry. Why worry a bout calories in when we should be focusing on calories out? is basically their goal. (Well played, Coca-cola but placing a set of stairs on the MyPyramid isn't going to solve the obesity epidemic).
There needs to be a dramatic cultural shift in how we view physical activity. First, let's really emphasize the difference between physical activity and planned exercise. I hear so often people tell me they are "active all day" but again, we become efficient at that activity and we want to be inefficient for energy to be burned. We also need to stop placing so much emphasis on the cosmetic reasons for exercise. I'm all about body-positivity and self-confidence but exercise is so much more than looks!!
Increasing physical activity:
To increase physical activity, a cultural shift would have to start in the workplace, and luckily it is. Companies are now incentivizing employees to join gyms and participate in exercise events, like 5-ks, for a greater health benefit package. This is ideal because typically these events happen outside of work hours, so it's a good way to increase physical activity. Even my dentist will reduce my co-pays if I show him my gym membership- how cool is that?!
Flexible work hours as opposed to set times may also be conducive to increasing physical activity. As long as work gets done, I support people coming in to work later and staying later (or vise versa) if it meant people had more energy to exercise.
I think another way to increase physical activity at the community level is to reduce urban sprawl. Living in a city has changed my mornings from driving to the gym to walking to it. This is anecdotal evidence, yes, but I am not the only one walking in the morning. Placing more green spaces and parks in areas where there are none would be another way to encourage physical activity. This would take a lot of civil engineering effort and planning but is absolutely possible. Prioritizing health is an absolute must, hopefully the Millenials will make it happen.
Reducing sedentary time on a community level:
Also, starting with the work place- we should to normalize walking meetings. Rather than the typical conference room setting (usually accompanied with donuts and pastries) meetings could be an excellent opportunity to get steps in. Also, designing office building such that there are open areas instead of confined, stuffed cubicle environments may encourage walking. How much more likely are you to walk to someone's desk if you see him or her rather than send an-email, text or make a quick Snap chat or phone call?
Schools now schedule classes in blocks. I think this is great for instilling more knowledge in people but there needs to be a rule that students get up, move, walk around etc. No one wants that stagnant gut feeling after class. Anyone else remember sitting in lecture for 3 hours, then going to study for another 3 hours....?
So to sum it up in a few points:
Reduce calories to reduce weight, exercise because it's fun and healthy.
Find every excuse at work/school to walk, be the "weird" one with a stand up desk and suggest the meetings be active.
Vote- vote for the congressmen and women who are pro- recreation and want zoning for more parks and side walks.
And never forget the wise words of Olivia Newtown John: Let's Get Physical!