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Is exercise for weight loss really pointless?

Judith Wills / 17 September 2021

A recent study on the link between exercise and weight loss might have generated tabloid headlines, but how much faith can we put in small-scale outlier studies?

Illustration of woman on treadmill

A recent research study widely covered in the media, which may have dismayed some of you trying to stay or get slim and fit via regular exercise, concluded that when we are overweight, the more exercise we do, the more our bodies compensate by conserving calories and reducing the amount we burn while sedentary. Thus the message seems to be (or at least, according to the tabloid headlines) “If you’re exercising to lose weight, don’t bother.”

“Blast!” was my first reaction to this. “But is this really true?” was my second.

The fact is that every day across the world, researchers reveal new statistics, findings, facts, based on their latest, often very small, studies on health. Looking back at studies from, say, ten years ago, many are now superseded by new information and many are found to have been incorrect or only partially correct in their conclusions.

So can we honestly believe today all that we’re told by scientists and researchers across the world about weight, health and exercise?

And how can it be that going out for a daily brisk walk or visit to the gym might not in fact translate into a slimmer body?

Science already knows that as we age our metabolism slows down as we naturally lose muscle mass – meaning that it’s all too easy to tip the scales on the side of obesity in later life. So this extra bit of negative info is not what we need.

But it was a relatively small study of less than 2,000 people and it contradicts years of other studies across the world finding that, in precis, activity equals calories burned and a slimmer, stronger, healthier body and a longer life.

So what I can tell you is that the vast majority of us will benefit tremendously from as much exercise/activity as we can manage, always factoring in commonsense and our own capabilities and limitations.

It’s all too easy to pounce on negative research into the limited health benefits of broccoli or the too small calorie burning effect of a walk with the dog in order to have a great excuse to do nothing, eat ice cream and cake, and watch box sets all day.

Yes, losing weight through exercise alone is not easy, and what we eat is equally as important. The vast majority of us will find our natural lifespan extended, and our quality of life while we are here improved, if we choose to eat a varied, balanced diet and take plenty of natural stuff as opposed to rubbish.

We will never know for sure, of course. How can I tell whether my diet and my activity have increased my lifespan? How can I know whether my healthy or otherwise habits have caused me to get cancer twice in my life – or helped me to survive both times?

What I can tell you for certain is that some years ago when I found myself getting on for two stones heavier than I’d ever been in my life, I began a fairly gentle, very sensible, programme that included going for a long walk every day, doing work on a rowing machine and exercise bike at home, cutting back somewhat on alcohol and total calories, and factoring in a fair bit of patience. It took me eleven months but I lost the weight, had a much better fitness profile at the gym – and a much better body shape - and felt, quite honestly, the best I’ve felt in a long, long time. No brain fog, lots of energy, happy in myself and feeling positive about life.

What more can we ask than that? If I’d just done a ‘diet’ and not bothered with the activity side of things, I really do not imagine I would have done as well or felt as good.

Whatever the scare headlines may tell you – humans were made to move. Humans were made to eat natural food. And those, people, are two facts I defy anyone to contradict.

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