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Just How Useful Is Exercise at Controlling Weight?

One of the assumptions about why Americans are increasingly overweight is that we've become a nation of couch potatoes, burning far fewer calories in our daily lives than we used to. But a new study is challenging the idea that a drop in physical activity is one of the key factors in the obesity epidemic.

Amy Luke of Loyola University and her colleagues compared 149 women from two rural Nigerian villages to 172 African-American women from Chicago. On average, the Nigerian women weighed about 127 pounds whereas the U.S. women weighed about 184.

To their surprise, the researchers determined that after adjusting for the women's body sizes, there was no significant difference in calories the women burned through physical activity. On average, the Chicago women burned an average of 760 calories per day through physical activity while the Nigerian women burned an average of about 800 calories, the researchers report in the September issue of the journal Obesity.

The researchers found good evidence that diet was the culprit. The Nigerian women's diets were high in fiber and carbohydrates and low in fat and animal protein. The U.S. women consumed a diet containing about 40 percent to 45 percent fat and high in processed food.

The researchers stress that the findings do not mean it's not a good idea to get regular exercise, which has a host of health benefits including strengthening bones, lowering blood pressure, boosting mood and reducing the risk for cancer.

But when it comes to controlling weight, the new study indicates that diet may play a more important role. People who exercise more may just increase their caloric intake.

Speaking of tips for losing weight, Consumer Reports this week released the results of a survey of 21,632 readers about how they stay thin. The survey found that of those who reported that they were either always thin or successfully lost weight were more more likely reported six key behaviors compared to failed dieters:

--Watch portions. Sixty-two percent of those who successfully lost weight carefully monitored the portions they ate, as did 57 percent of the "always thin," compared to only r 42 percent of the failed dieters

--Limit fat. Fifty-three percent of the successful losers and 47 percent of the always thin restricted fat to les than one-third of daily calories, compared with just 35 percent of the failed dieters.

--Eat fruits and vegetables. Forty-nine percent of successful losers and the always thin said they ate five or more servings a day at least five days a week, while 38 percent of failed dieters did so.

-- Choose whole grains over refined. Thinner people consistently opted for whole-wheat breads, cereals, and other grains over refined grains.

-- Eat at home. The more people ate out the more they weighed.

And, lastly, guess what?

-- Exercise. Regular vigorous exercise was strongly linked to a lower body mass index.

So exercise may not be completely useless after all.

What do you think? Does exercise help you stay thin?

By Rob Stein  |  January 8, 2009; 11:59 AM ET
Categories:  Obesity  
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I have been a consistent exerciser (jogger) for over 20 years; I am also someone who has struggled to keep a healthy weight since childhood. In the last 10 years I have been more successful with keeping my weight in a good range, and this has mostly been through dietary measures. The exercise helps but has only a secondary effect on my weight. What seems to happen is that if I increase my excerise level, I will initially lose a little weight but it will come back as I adjust my eating to take into account the higher activity. I have come to accept that my appetite is somehow naturally set to keep me overweight - that was true even when I was little (and the rest of my family was not fat).

However if I had to choose between being fit and being thin, fit would win out any time. The exercise makes me feel so much better in every way. I do like being thinner so I have effective diet strategies for when my weight gets to be more than I like, I am less effective in maintaining a good weight though. I am actually on a weight-loss diet right now... I hope when I get to a good weight again I can devise a maintenance diet I can stick to.

Posted by: catherine3 | January 8, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Somebody needs to spell check this article. The NY Times also fails to spell check articles. It really looks sloppy.

Posted by: beoods | January 8, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

The findings are certainly consistent with my own experience -- when I exercise regularly, my appetite goes through the roof. The only ways I have ever been able to consistently lose weight were: (1) Atkins diet (no hunger), or (2) exercise HARD 5-6 days a week, and follow a strict 1800 cal/day diet, regardless of how hungry I was. Neither one was viable long term.

Posted by: laura33 | January 8, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Exercise does not help me lose weight. I get hungrier when exercising and eat more. I don't think it hurts, because I think it nets out. But, it does not help with weight loss.

As the article says, there are other benefits to exercise. I should exercise more. My real problem with dieting is will-power. I am on a seefood diet. I see food, and I eat it.

Limit portions? Yeah, that will work, but what if you can help but eat more?

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | January 8, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

This research is nothing new.
When you eat processed foods, your body has a hard time getting rid of it.
When you eat natural foods and move around a little, you burn fat.
We are fat in the US becuase we choose to be. All we need is a little self control, which is lacking in every industry in the US. The state of our country right now is a reflection of how we as a people want everything but want to do nothing for it.

Looseing weight is not science. It's a
lifestyle change. Diet is a bad 4-letter word. Don't go on a diet. Change the lifestyle.

Want to loose weight? Stop eating so much.

Besides, exercise is not only for weight loss. It's for health living as catherine3 pointed out. It makes you feel beter and it makes your body feel better and work better. Don't equate diet and exercise. A diet if for loosing weight and Exercise is for healthy living.

Posted by: mikeMM | January 8, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

"And, lastly, guess what? -- Exercise. Regular vigorous exercise was strongly linked to a lower body mass index. So exercise may not be completely useless after all. What do you think? Does exercise help you stay thin?"

What do we think? Didn't you learn anything from the "Group Names Top Health Hoaxes of 2008" posting? Observational studies are almost completely useless. There is no way to know if the people in the study with low BMI got it from the vigorous exercise or simply that people with low BMI choose to exercise vigorously. It's easy to understand that heavy people are naturally less attracted to vigorus exercise since it requires a lot of energy to move a heavy body in such fashion.

Posted by: ogs123 | January 8, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

If you read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes the whole report makes sense, because the Nigerians are eating less refined carbohydrates. That is the key.

The Consumer Reports article was the stupidest article I've seen from them in over 20 years reading their magazine. There was no clue to whether the person who never dieted had insulin resistance or took medications that puts weight on people. Why they didn't even ask respondents to identify if they were apple or pear shaped, so there could be a correlation. Telling me that I should follow the diet of someone who probably eats twice as much food per day than I do was absurd.

When you read about the few studies that actually compared people eating a low-fat diet with people eating a normal diet, and the low-fat diet had a five times as great death rate, it brings the whole concept of what is a good diet into question.

Posted by: SueRi | January 8, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

NIH has said many times that weight control is not hard. Just keep the calories in less than the calories out. There are no "bad" calories and there are very tenuous ties as to how certain foods are "better" calories than others. (as much as I hate to promote them) Weight Watchers has actually tuned into this with their points system. There are many "calorie dense" foods out there, and everyone's body is different, but a calorie is a calorie, be it processed, non processed, organic, inorganic (not sure how that works) or other.

Posted by: byte1 | January 8, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

I think regular exercise is more a "marker" for concern and desire to maintain ones' health. Magazines are full of all this pump-up-your-metabolism talk about the benefits of exercise, but it only takes one Ben & Jerry's to wipe that out.

That said, maintaining your balance, coordination and conditioning is helpful even if you aren't moving towards the next smaller size, so I'd always think a person is ahead to exercise.

I think that weighing oneself regularly and adjusting food intake when the scale registers small gains is probably the most important thing.

Eating is a habit and it's easier to control it when your adjustments are small. How many of us came back to work last week and thought we'd starve because we'd spent the prior two weeks snacking away on all those Christmas goodies? If you let those habits go on too long then you have to suffer more than a couple of days before you get your diet habits back in control, and that reduces the chances that you'll get them back in control.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 9, 2009 7:01 AM | Report abuse

It depends what you mean by "exercise." More intensive exercise will raise basal metabolic rate long after the exercise session has ended. Space out two exercise sessions during the day (one early and one late), and you've effectively raised your BMR for most of the day - burning a lot more calories. Also, appetite is not just based on calories in and out. A given number of calories of a simple sugar (frosted donut) will eventually result in a return of appetite more rapidly than the equivalent number of calories of a complex carbohydrate (oatmeal). The former causes a larger peak in insulin levels, but a very precipitous fall that stimulates appetite. The latter produces a more modest rise and a prolonged fall. Thus, delayed and less intense stimulation of appetite.

Posted by: kenarmy | January 9, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

"On average, the Chicago women burned an average of 760 calories per day through physical activity while the Nigerian women burned an average of about 800 calories,.."

Or perhaps simply eating 40 less calories a day over a lifetime can account for the weight differences.

Posted by: cmecyclist | January 12, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

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