There are benefits of exercise in terms of psychological and physical functioning. Exercise is effective in treating mild to moderate levels of anxiety and depression. Exercise undoubtedly improves our cardiovascular fitness, our body shape through muscle tone (an important issue for many people) and our stress management. In terms of weight, the main relationship between exercise and weight loss seems to be not with losing weight but keeping it off once we have lost it. Is this about burning off calories?
If this was the case wouldn’t it make a difference when we are trying to lose weight? No, when you look at the research, all that it says is that those who continue to exercise are more likely to keep their weight off. People sometimes confuse ‘causality’ with ‘association’. Just because people who exercise regularly keep their weight off does not mean that exercising is the cause of them keeping their weight off. Exercise and keeping weight off may be associated through the fact that they are both caused by something else.
The majority of people who exercise regularly are not overweight. The gym that I was a part-owner of was dominated by those who did not need to visit a gym for weight loss. You could look around the gym and think, as many people do,‘Gee, if I come here I will look like them’. This was our best advertising and you could see the entire gym from our sales counter! What most people didn’t realize was that most of the lithe, well cut young figures looked like that before they joined our gym! Until relatively recently, Ferrari made only red cars – you could order any color you liked as long as it was red. Now this does not mean that Ferraris go faster because they are red – but if you studied the color of some of the world’s fastest cars you would find that the color red appeared more frequently than expected.In the same way, the USA’s National Weight Control Registry that studies people who have lost weight and kept it off, reveals that this population is more likely to exercise regularly.
The two most popular activities were walking and aerobic dance. While this is suggestive, it does not necessarily mean that regular exercise is responsible for keeping the weight off. Most of the NWCR registrants exercise, on average, for an hour a day! At that level they can afford that extra 200 calories in a dessert or one of their high sacrifice foods and not gain weight. Certainly it is unusual that they exercise, on average for an hour a day.
Exercise and keeping weight off may be associated through the fact that they are both caused by something else. Exercising, especially to this level, for most people is harder than eating a balanced, healthy diet, at the very least it requires a significant amount of motivation. Because exercising regularly requires high-level motivation, people who wish to manage their weight and can maintain a regular exercise program will also apply this very same motivation to their food choices. Thus regular exercise could simply be a marker of a high level of motivation for both exercise and eating healthily. This is an alternative explanation for the association found between regular exercise and maintaining weight loss.
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