Weighing the Evidence on Exercise
How exercise affects body weight is one of the more intriguing and vexing issues in physiology. Exercise burns calories, no one doubts that, and so it should, in theory, produce weight loss, a fact that has prompted countless people to undertake exercise programs to shed pounds. Without significantly changing their diets, few succeed. “Anecdotally, all of us have been cornered by people claiming to have spent hours each week walking, running, stair-stepping, etc., and are displeased with the results on the scale or in the mirror,” wrote Barry Braun, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in the American College of Sports Medicine’s February newsletter.
But a growing body of science suggests that exercise does have an important role in weight loss. That role, however, is different from what many people expect and probably wish. The newest science suggests that exercise alone will not make you thin, but it may determine whether you stay thin, if you can achieve that state. Until recently, the bodily mechanisms involved were mysterious. But scientists are slowly teasing out exercise’s impact on metabolism, appetite and body composition, though the consequences of exercise can vary. Women’s bodies, for instance, seem to react differently than men’s bodies to the metabolic effects of exercise. None of which is a reason to abandon exercise as a weight-loss tool. You just have to understand what exercise can and cannot do.
“In general, exercise by itself is pretty useless for weight loss,” says Eric Ravussin, a professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., and an expert on weight loss. It’s especially useless because people often end up consuming more calories when they exercise. The mathematics of weight loss is, in fact, quite simple, involving only subtraction. “Take in fewer calories than you burn, put yourself in negative energy balance, lose weight,” says Braun, who has been studying exercise and weight loss for years. The deficit in calories can result from cutting back your food intake or from increasing your energy output — the amount of exercise you complete — or both.
In a completed but unpublished study conducted in his energy-metabolism lab, Braun and his colleagues had a group of volunteers spend an entire day sitting. If they needed to visit the bathroom or any other location, they spun over in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, in a second session, the same volunteers stood all day, “not doing anything in particular,” Braun says, “just standing.” The difference in energy expenditure was remarkable, representing “hundreds of calories,” Braun says, but with no increase among the upright in their blood levels of ghrelin or other appetite hormones. Standing, for both men and women, burned multiple calories but did not ignite hunger. One thing is going to become clear in the coming years, Braun says: if you want to lose weight, you don’t necessarily have to go for a long run. “Just get rid of your chair.”
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