Exercise is incredible for your health in many ways, but one of its biggest benefits in many people’s eyes, weight loss, may not actually be among its superpowers after all – if you believe a review article published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons.
It’s a debate that has been raging for a long time. Weight is often boiled down to calories in versus calories out, and indeed you’re going to put on pounds if you regularly consume more than you expend. However, for many people, it’s easier to curb calorie consumption than it is to expend more calories, and that’s because vigorous exercise often makes people quite hungry, causing them to eat the calories they’ve just burned – and then some.
In the review article in question, Dr. Hermann W. Borg tears apart a few persistent weight control concepts. One of these is particularly timely, and it’s what he calls the “Paleo Myth.” Proponents of the Paleo way of eating say that modern obesity comes about because we have so many labor-saving devices that we aren’t burning nearly as many calories as our predecessors who had to hunt, gather, and secure shelter all day long, and that our way of life isn’t compatible with human physiology.
However, Dr. Borg found several studies illustrating this is a fallacy. For example, studies carried out on the Hadza people of Tanzania, who still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, showed that although they exercise more than their Western counterparts, they don’t actually burn a greater number of calories per day. Their total energy expenditure, or TEE, was similar to that of 21st-century urban dwellers because their greater daily activity level was compensated by a lower basic metabolic rate and non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
He added that it’s also a misconception that Paleolithic humans didn’t have access to refined sugar, so our high-sugar diets are behind obesity. Dr. Borg said the Paleolithic diet is not, in fact, low in sugar, as honey was a big part of their diet and very easy to obtain. Studies on remote tribes in South America back this idea. Of course, even though humans have always eaten sugar in some form or another, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy – far from it.
Dr. Borg concedes that exercise offers very important benefits, chief among them reducing the chance of heart disease and some types of cancer. However, when it comes to losing weight and helping it stay off, he feels it’s not as effective as people give it credit for. When we talk about people living and breathing a Paleolithic lifestyle, such as the Hadza, they are slimmer not because they exercise more than modern Americans but because they eat less than us. Exercise helps, he says, but it’s not a cure-all.
Therefore, he suggests that those who are serious about slimming down focus on their diet above all else. He concluded: “While exercise is a helpful adjuvant to weight control and a part of lifestyle modification strategies to improve general health, strict compliance with a calorie-restrictive diet – not vigorous exercise – should be the mainstay of obesity management.
Other experts agree with this stance. Nutritionist Lisa Drayer told WPTV: “Basically, what I always tell people is, what you omit from your diet is so much more important than how much you exercise.”
It can be helpful to keep in mind that all your “calories in” are coming from the food you eat, while just a portion of your “calories out” will be lost through exercise – and many people seriously overestimate the calories they burn from exercise.
Of course, exercise remains important for preventing and managing diseases and fighting depression, but the takeaway here is that diet can make a far bigger difference when it comes to shedding unwanted pounds.
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