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Bad news for fitness gyms

Just when I am finally exercising with some amount of regularity with the goal of losing weight, here comes that article in the latest issue of Time magazine saying I am punishing myself for nothing. The article talks of a number of research findings showing that far from causing me to lose weight, exercise may cause the opposite effect. Ironically, sweating it out on the exercycle every day may be just the thing why my waist is still expanding.

The Time article reports that “the past few years of obesity research show that the role of exercise in weight loss has been wildly overstated.” It quotes Eric Ravussin, chair in diabetes and metabolism at Louisiana State University and a prominent exercise researcher declaring: “In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless.”

Now, that’s a jarring revelation. Does this mean I could go back to being a lazy tub of lard, as one of my daughters would put it, and it won’t really matter much in terms of my health? Not exactly but pretty close. Exercise helps in other ways too. It does promote cardio-vascular health. People who regularly exercise, the article points out, are at significantly lower risk for cancer, diabetes and many other illnesses. Going to the right gym also allows your eye muscles to exercise if you know where to look.

But for weight loss, recent studies have found that exercise isn’t as effective for weight loss as gym advertisements want us to believe. The basic problem, the Time article points out, is that while it’s true exercise burns calories and you must burn calories to lose weight, exercise has another effect: it can stimulate hunger. That causes us to eat more, which in turn can negate whatever weight loss benefits it may have.

An 18-month study of 538 students showed that when kids start to exercise, they end up eating more — not just a little more, but an average of 100 calories more than they had just burned.

“Exercise, in other words, isn’t necessarily helping us lose weight. It may even be making it harder.” Experts call this compensation. It could be because exercise made us hungry or because we want to reward ourselves (or both). A study found out most of the women who exercised ate more than they did before they started the experiment. Or they compensated in another way, by moving around a lot less than usual after they got home.

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That’s probably why obesity figures have risen dramatically in an era when membership in exercise gyms has grown dramatically. Then again, it’s also possible that those of us who regularly go to the gym would weigh even more if we exercised less.

The findings of another study bear consideration. After six months of working out, most of the exercisers in the study were able to trim their waistlines slightly — by about an inch. Even so, Time reports they lost no more overall body fat than the control group did.

Apparently, the experts are now telling us, humans are not a species that evolved to dispose of many extra calories beyond what we need to live. Rats, on the other hand, have a far greater capacity to get rid of excess calories because they have more of a dark-colored tissue called brown fat.

Brown fat helps produce a protein that switches off little cellular units called mitochondria, which are the cells’ power plants: they help turn nutrients into energy. When they’re switched off, animals don’t get an energy boost. Instead, the animals literally get warmer. And as their temperature rises, calories burn effortlessly.

Time reports that because rodents have a lot of brown fat, it’s very difficult to make them obese, even when you force-feed them in labs. But humans have so little brown fat. That’s why, Time warns, humans can gain weight with just an extra half-muffin a day. We almost instantly store most of the calories we don’t need in our regular (“white”) fat cells.

Time laments that all our heroic efforts to exercise over the past 30 years — all money spent on personal trainers, StairMasters and VersaClimbers; all the Pilates classes and yoga retreats and fat camps — may have stimulated the economy but has utterly failed to make us thinner.

That’s because “after we exercise, we often crave sugary calories like those in muffins or in ‘sports’ drinks like Gatorade. A standard 20-oz. bottle of Gatorade contains 130 calories. If you’re hot and thirsty after a 20-minute run in summer heat, it’s easy to guzzle that bottle in 20 seconds, in which case the caloric expenditure and the caloric intake are probably a wash. From a weight-loss perspective, you would have been better off sitting on the sofa knitting.”

It isn’t also mostly a matter of willpower. We can learn both to exercise and to avoid muffins and Gatorade but, Time explains, evolution did not build us to do this for very long. Some of us can will ourselves to overcome our basic psychology, Time concedes, but most of us won’t be very successful. Succumbing to the temptation to indulge ourselves comes easy… sapagkat tayo’y tao lamang!

But it is still good to exercise… maybe to see the hot babes sweating it out... just don’t have any wild expectations of weight loss. The Time article pointed out that “in addition to enhancing heart health and helping prevent disease, exercise improves your mental health and cognitive ability. A study published in June in the journal Neurology found that older people who exercise at least once a week are 30percent more likely to maintain cognitive function than those who exercise less.”

But experts, according to Time, are still not certain if it is exercise — sweaty, exhausting, hunger-producing bursts of activity done exclusively to benefit our health — that leads to all these benefits or something far simpler: regularly moving during our waking hours. Our lifestyle today encourages couch potatoes and cyber addicts and long hours sitting down. But our bodies are designed to move around. We all need to move more, the experts admonish even if we do not have to stress our bodies that much at the gym.

The article, to my relief, says that to burn calories, the muscle movements don’t have to be extreme. There isn’t that much gain in pain. It would be better to distribute the movements throughout the day. It’s not clear, the article reassures slobs like myself, that vigorous exercise like running carries more benefits than a moderately strenuous activity like walking while carrying groceries. Or climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Or walking to the pantry to prepare your cup of coffee instead of asking your secretary.

In conclusion, it’s what you eat, not how hard you try to work it off that matters more in losing weight. Research has established that the obese already “exercise” more than most of the rest of us. We should exercise to improve our health, but be warned: fiery spurts of vigorous exercise could lead to weight gain.

My late father, a doctor who constantly urged me to exercise more, also gave one wise advise that current research appears to have validated: it is not enough for you to do push ups… you must also do push away… away from the dinner table.

Chocolates

Here’s another bit of health news from Dr. Ernie E that’s music to my ears… and my palate. In a story datelined Paris, experts have reported that “heart attack survivors who eat chocolate two or more times per week cut their risk of dying from heart disease about threefold compared to those who never touch the stuff.”

Smaller quantities confer less protection, but are still better than none, according to the study, which appears in the September issue of the Journal of Internal Medicine. Earlier research had established a strong link between cocoa-based confections and lowered blood pressure or improvement in blood flow.

But, the Agence France-Presse reports, the new study, led by Imre Janszky of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, “is the first to demonstrate that consuming chocolate can help ward off the grim reaper if one has suffered acute myocardial infarction — otherwise known as a heart attack.”

The research also found out “it was specific to chocolate — we found no benefit to sweets in general.” Kenneth Mukamal, a researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a co-author of the study explained “it seems that antioxidants in cocoa are a likely candidate.”

Then again, I suppose it is best to take dark unsweetened chocolate because, as my doctor brother in law emphasized to me, sugar is poison.

Wise man

As one wise man once said: I don’t understand why so many health conscious vegetarians think they should avoid chocolate like they avoid red meat. All true chocoholics know it is a vegetable. It comes from the cocoa bean, beans are veggies. Duh!

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. This and some past columns can also be viewed at www.boochanco.com

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