The exercise community is up in arms over a recent Time magazine cover story on the relationship between exercise and weight. The gist of it is captured in this excerpt: "People who regularly exercise are at significantly lower risk for all manner of diseases -- those of the heart in particular. They less often develop cancer, diabetes and many other illnesses. But the past few years of obesity research show that the role of exercise in weight loss has been wildly overstated."
I, too, was surprised by the article and its provocative headline "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin.'' It took me a couple of close reads to make sense of the piece. The author points to a phenomenon known as compensation to account for the extra calories people consume after vigorous exercise, which can in fact cancel the benefit of calories burned. What the article neglected to report, however, is that obesity research is quite clear on the central role of exercise in maintaining weight loss once it has been achieved.
The most important information in the article actually comes in the last paragraph: "The problem ultimately is about not exercise itself but the way we've come to define it. Many obesity researchers now believe that very frequent, low-level physical activity -- the kind humans did for tens of thousands of years before the leaf blower was invented -- may actually work better for us than the occasional bouts of exercise you get as a gym rat." This is an important distinction.
As I have mentioned before in this space, one of the hats I wear is that of CEO and president of the American Council for Fitness & Nutrition (ACFN), a nonprofit organization committed to helping Americans understand the benefits of eating healthfully and being more active. ACFN's Healthy Schools Partnership project demonstrates that teaching our children to balance physical activity (calories burned in living an active life) with food (calories consumed in a healthy diet) is the long-term answer to weight management for the population as a whole. What underpins the success of the ACFN program is the integration of registered dietitians into the physical education classroom to teach the principal of energy balance. We believe this model will play key role in creating positive outcomes on both side of the balance equation - energy in and energy out - and that adds up to healthier kids.
Maybe the Time headline should have read, "Why Over-Exercising Won't Make You Thin But Daily Physical Activity Balanced with Consuming the Optimal Number of Calories Will." But that wouldn't have been a grabber, would it?