Americans are exercising more, but obesity is still rising

Health literacy

IT’S OFTEN SAID that you can’t outrun a bad diet. The American Heart Association even adopted it as a slogan and put it on a poster in 2015. The argument goes that even if you exercise regularly, it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to burn off the calories associated with a bad diet. In fact Professor Tim Noakes, a world-leading expert on exercise science and sports medicine, wrote earlier this year that “all the exercise in the world” wouldn’t solve the health crisis in his native South Africa. And he should know: Professor Noakes has run more than 70 marathons and ultra-marathons.

In the past 30 years, obesity has dramatically increased. According to UK-based medical journal The Lancet’s global burden of disease report, poor diet now leads to more disease than physical inactivity, alcohol and smoking combined. Nevertheless, there is still a widely held false perception that obesity is entirely due to lack of exercise. When you consider the data we have available, this clearly can’t be true. Just to burn off the calories in a bar of chocolate you would have to run for 22 minutes. To burn off just a quarter of a pizza, you would have to run for more than 40 minutes. Just as the tobacco industry was able to perpetuate the myth that there was no direct link between smoking and lung cancer, the food industry has been successful in convincing a large portion of the public that so long as you stay active, an unhealthy diet won’t cause you serious harm.

What’s concerning is that the data showing that exercise alone isn’t enough for weight loss isn’t new. In fact, it has been in circulation for decades. But there is enough confusion and delusion among the public to cause people to act as if it isn’t true. Everyone knows the person who ‘rewards’ themselves after a workout with a can of Coca-Cola or a hamburger. In fact, a study in 2009 found that most people seemed to increase their food intake after exercise. Another study, from 2012, found that people almost always overestimated how much energy they had expended when they worked out.

This isn’t to say that exercise is bad. Exercise is crucial for maintaining good overall health, physical and mental. It’s good for the mind, the mood and the strengthening of the muscles, the bones and the cardiovascular system. But the evidence is clear: it isn’t the most important thing for weight loss.

A good illustration that exercise alone is not sufficient for weight loss emerged last month, when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that, despite the majority of Americans meeting the government’s exercise recommendation for the third year running, nearly one in three people in the US is obese and the rate continues to rise. This echoed an editorial in the British Medical Journal, which concluded that not only is exercise alone almost useless for weight loss, but companies encourage the idea that you can ‘outrun a bad diet’ to sidestep culpability.

Our obesity problem in the West is serious, and if we fail to educate ourselves or, worse, delude ourselves, we will not reverse the trend. When it comes to losing weight, there are no shortcuts, despite what you might see on the Internet. Weight-loss pills, anti-aging supplements and fat-burning powders, or five-minute exercise routines that promise to ‘torch fat’ or get you ‘ripped’ only represent an evasion of responsibility.

Small changes can set a person off on the road to a healthier diet. Cutting out a single can of Coke each day saves you 250 calories. If you’re serious about staying in good shape and warding off sickness then the simply solution is to change your lifestyle in a positive way, and that means following a healthy diet.

Share this blog post:

Twitter @Kevin__Lamb

Follow Kevin on twitter: @Kevin__Lamb