Does Exercise Really Help You Lose Weight?

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I have to ‘fess up:  I just took a long “break” from serious exercising. For almost all of March and April, I was focused on preparing for and then getting through my doctoral exams, which involved writing three research papers that totaled 70 pages and then taking an oral exam.  During those months, I jokingly told family members and friends that I could feel my brain cramping from the exertion. Fortunately I passed the exams, which freed up my time to focus on other things – like getting back into the gym.

    So as of this morning, I’m slowly getting back into the groove. I’ve gone to two classes in the past four days, and have the sore muscles that remind me that I’ve been gone from the gym for too long. I’ve also been reminding myself of what I learned from an article featured in Time called “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.”

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    In that article, reporter John Cloud noted that recent research into obesity has found that exercise’s role in weight loss is exaggerated. “The basic problem is that while it’s true that exercise burns calories and that you must burn calories to lose weight, exercise has another effect: it can stimulate hunger,” Cloud wrote. “That causes us to eat more, which in turn can negate the weight-loss benefits we just accrued. Exercise, in other words, isn’t necessarily helping us lose weight. It may even be making it harder.”

    The article described a study by Louisiana State University’s Dr. Timothy Church that randomly assigned 464 overweight women who didn’t exercise regularly into four groups. Women in three of the groups were asked to exercise with a personal trainer each week for six weeks; each group was assigned a specific period of time that they needed to exercise each week. The fourth group maintained their usual physical activity routines. All groups were asked to maintain their dietary habits and to complete monthly questionnaires about their medical symptoms. The study’s findings were that women in all groups lost weight; however, the groups that exercised with the help of a trainer did not lose significantly more weight than the women in the control group.  Also, some of the women in all four groups actually gained weight.

    What may have caused this finding is that those who formally exercised decide to “treat” themselves with some sort of food. Or the extra exercise may make people hungrier, therefore causing them to eat more. That makes it problematic since the human body easily stores extra calories in fat cells.  “A standard 20-oz. bottle of Gatorade contains 130 calories,” Cloud wrote. “If you’re hot and thirsty after a 20-minute run in summer heat, it’s easy to guzzle that bottle in 20 seconds, in which case the caloric expenditure and the caloric intake are probably a wash.”

    Exercise does serve a purpose, though, in preventing disease and maintaining heart and brain health.  Still, Cloud notes that “there’s some confusion about whether it is exercise – sweaty, exhausting, hunger-producing bursts of activity done exclusively to benefit our health – that leads to all those benefits or something far simpler: regularly moving during our waking hours.” He notes that leisure-time physical activities (gardening, walking, etc.) have actually decreased since the 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cloud suggests that strenuous exercise (such as what we do at the gym) may actually cause us to be more sedentary for the rest of the day.

  • So what to do with this information? I’ll keep my gym membership in order to get the exercise that I need the most (like strength-training in order to maintain bone health). But I’ll revise my thinking about whether going to the gym means that I can check off exercise from my daily list. Instead, I’ll try to move more throughout the day by parking at the far end of the parking lot when I go to the grocery store, doing my own yard work, and choosing the stairs over the elevator.  And I’ll try to avoid thinking that I’ve “earned” an extra treat after working out, knowing now that I’ll just be negating the calories that I’ve burned by exercising.

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Published On: May 27, 2010