The Key to Weight Control Is Exercise, Right? Wrong.

by Matt Weik

We are programmed into thinking that if we exercise, over time we are able to maintain or lose weight—that the two are directly correlated. However, exercise might not have much to do with weight control in the grand scheme of things.

It seems like we put a lot of focus on telling people they need to be more active during the day and that if they increase their energy expenditure, they will lose weight. It might be wishful thinking, as that isn’t necessarily true. New research is also showing a lack of correlation between exercise and weight control. In fact, Loyola University Chicago competed a study where the lead researcher mentioned, “Our study results indicate that physical activity may not protect you from gaining weight.” That might have just busted the bubble of the people currently on a treadmill reading this article.

There are people out there who haven’t exercised a day in their life. Yet, they look healthy and aren’t carrying around excess body fat. How can this be? Well, either they are genetically blessed or they can control their nutrition and eating habits. Where many people go awry is with their nutrition. They believe they are eating healthy food choices when they really aren’t, as well as not paying attention to serving sizes that can completely ruin their calories for the day if they aren’t paying attention.

So, how does exercise tie (or not tie) into all of this? It’s a known fact that when you exercise you are burning calories. Many of you are nodding your head with a “duh Matt” expression on your face. However, what many people don’t think about is when you exercise, it generally increases your appetite. But let’s also not fool ourselves in thinking that people are not exactly honest with how much physical activity they get each day. Many people grossly exaggerate how much time they spend engaging in physical activity. They either don’t track it properly or they blatantly lie because they don’t want it to appear that they do hardly any physical activity or simply don’t do any at all.

Here’s where I’m tying this all in. Let’s take an individual for example who started an exercise program, but has no idea how to hone in on their nutrition to make it work for them and help them towards their weight loss goals. They finish up a workout and know they burned a whole bunch of calories. Their metabolism is revving well after finishing their workouts. However, because their appetite is increased, they end up eating more calories than they should throughout the day regardless if the food choices are good or bad. Blowing your intake through the roof with healthy foods can still have you put on weight. Using a simple tool such as MyFitnessPal could have prevented this, had someone shown this person how to use the free app and track their daily caloric intake and macronutrients.

What’s the most recent research saying about exercise and weight control?

Loyola University Chicago conducted a study using individuals (both men and women) ranging in age from 25 to 40 and who were from five different countries—Ghana, Jamaica, Seychelles, South Africa, and the United States. All of the participants were asked to come into a testing facility where researchers would gather their height, weight, and body fat. The week before the initial testing, the researchers asked each participant to wear an accelerometer for seven days to gauge how active each individual is during a normal week and checked it with the United States Surgeon General physical activity guidelines where it is recommended that everyone should get a minimum of two and a half hours of physical activity (moderate intensity) each week. After all of the initial testing was done, the researchers asked each of the participants to come back in one year and then also again the following year (two years after the initial testing).

As one would expect from the initial testing, the United States came in the heaviest of all the countries in the study. Men in the United States weighed in at 206 pounds while women came in at 202 pounds. The participants from Ghana came in the fittest and had both men and women being initially weighed in at 139 pounds. According to the results when compared to the physical activity guidelines, of the United States women in the study, only 20% of them met the guidelines while 44% of the men did. Looking at the Ghana participants, 44% of the women met the Surgeon General’s guidelines while 76% of the men did.

Here is where the final results will leave some people scratching their heads. At the completion of the study when people came in for their final testing, the American men who didn’t initially meet the requirements for the United States Surgeon General physical activity guidelines actually lost 0.6 pounds while the American men who did initially meet the guidelines gained 0.5 pounds. Surprisingly enough, all of the participants in the study regardless of country who met the physical activity guidelines initially showed weight gain. To many, this is the opposite of what would make sense. One would imagine that if you were active and met the physical activity guidelines initially that the participants would have lost weight at the final testing, but in reality, the opposite happened where whose who didn’t meet the guidelines were actually the ones to lose weight when it was all said and done.

Due to the fact that the researchers had no contact with the participants for a year at a time, many other factors could have come into play. It would have been helpful to know if any dietary or physical activity changes took place during the study from all groups and if they played a role in the final results.

Lara R. Dugas, Stephanie Kliethermes, Jacob Plange-Rhule, Liping Tong, Pascal Bovet, Terrence E. Forrester, Estelle V. Lambert, Dale A. Schoeller, Ramon A. Durazo-Arvizu, David A. Shoham, Guichan Cao, Soren Brage, Ulf Ekelund, Richard S. Cooper, Amy Luke. Accelerometer-measured physical activity is not associated with two-year weight change in African-origin adults from five diverse populations. PeerJ, 2017; 5: e2902 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2902

Loyola University Health System. “Study provides new evidence that exercise is not key to weight control.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 February 2017. .