If you have been attentive to what I have been saying so far in this series of articles, it will not surprise you when I answer: Sometimes yes, most of the time no. Like everything else that impacts our weight control effectiveness, there is a lot of individual variation. No single approach works for everyone. There are some folks whose weight is very sensitive to changes in exercise and other activities, while there are others with whom even vigorous exercise on a regular basis doesn’t help their weight control much.
Despite all this individual variation, though, it is still possible to describe some useful general patterns. A lot of animal experimentation has been done in which various species have been studied to see how their innate body weight regulation systems varied with their level of activity. No matter which species you study, you always find the same patterns. The studies typically involve allowing the animals to eat and drink as much healthy food and drink as they want to consume. Researchers devise ways to limit there activity all the way from no restrictions at all down to the point where they are totally immobile. What they find is that animals normally regulate their body weight quite precisely if free to move about at will, but there exists a threshold in the animal’s activity, below which the animal no longer maintains a normal body weight. If animals are forced to be sedentary enough, their weight regulation mechanisms are disrupted and they can become overweight, sometimes even quite obese.
Humans show this same pattern, just like all other animal species. If we are inactive enough, we tend to eat more than we need and an otherwise normal appetite regulation can break down. But once we reach this threshold of enough activity, our weight is usually much better regulated. As we increase our activity above this threshold, though, our appetite tends to increase exactly enough to match the increased calorie expenditure. There are two lessons here. One is that we need to make sure we have enough daily activity and exercise to get us above our threshold so that we are not fighting abnormal regulatory impulses. The other is that once we are above that threshold, increasing our exercise will not generally help us lose more weight, we will just get hungrier and eat more to compensate.
It is amazing to me how often I have people tell me how puzzled they are that they cannot control their weight and then when I begin to question them, it is their exercise level that they focus on. They say: “How can I be working so hard on such a vigorous exercise program and my weight doesn’t go down? Even as I do more and more, my weight just doesn’t respond.” Often, a careful food history indicates that they consume a diet that is very poor and very conducive to weight gain. It is as if they think that it is only exercise that matters and a good exercise program will eliminate the need to work on a healthy way of eating. This brings me to another very important maxim:
- A vigorous exercise program will almost never make up for poor food choices.
The flip side of this equation is also true. Even if someone is completely immobilized due to injury or disability, they can often control their weight with a good quality diet.
A further point that is important: it is not easy to predict at what level of exercise your individual threshold will be crossed and your appetite will become less well regulated as your activity level drop. You will have to find this out by trial and error. There is a lot of individual variation. In general, though, I find if people exercise for an hour three times a week, this seems to be enough to get most people above their innate threshold. Also, it does not matter to your body if your exercise is hustling in an assembly line at work or on a treadmill at a gym. Exercise is exercise whether you pay someone for the opportunity to do it or they pay you for your efforts. And, of course, this same exercise is not just valuable for weight control, it helps every aspect of our body and mind. The human body is designed to be active and is not easily adapted to a sedentary life style.
I am often asked what kind of exercise is best. Counseling many individuals about exercise over the years, I have found that what matters most is that they find something fun and comfortable to do. If they don’t like it, they probably will not keep it up. It needs to be a part of a practical plan you can continue for the rest of your life. Making it into a social activity, or being able to listen to good music during the sessions, or reading a good novel can be ways to make exercise more enjoyable and consequently easier to stick with.
So, the upshot of all this is that there may be an occasional person for whom an exercise program is all they need to control their weight, but most of us will need to optimize both our exercise and our way of eating. Each of us will need an individualized approach that will require experimentation and careful observation to arrive at something that works for us and matches both our personality and physiology.
We finally are getting to where the rubber meets the road for most of us in controlling our body weight: adjusting what we eat. The next article will approach this topic in a global sort of way before later articles discuss specific components of our habitual diet choices.
As always, comments, questions and the sharing of your own experience is warmly encouraged.