Food bigger factor than exercise

By February 7, 2009Uncategorized

Paul Lucas, Queensland’s Deputy Premier has a weight problem. His jeans don’t fit but that’s not really the issue. Portly Paul’s boss, the botox pumpin’, half marathon runnin’, Premier is his real problem.

Captain Bligh wants her crew to shape up or ship out before the next election. There’ll be push-ups on the poop deck and calisthenics on the quarter-deck if Bligh gets her way. Concerned that her front bench will soon all be visible on satellite pictures, the Premier wants Queensland’s leaders to show the rest of us how a little bit of exercise can turn them back into able-seamen first-class.

The new ministerial lard reduction policy is very much in line with Queensland’s current ‘Find your 30’ fitness campaign. It exhorts everyone to find 30 minutes of activity every day so they can stop being so obese (perhaps not an exact quote). And is a response to reports like the one released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in October.  That report revealed that in the last decade alone the number of overweight and obese Australians jumped from 41.1 percent in 1998 to 59.3 percent now.

The usual response to this kind of report is that we haven’t been doing enough exercise. But according to the Australian Sports Commission, in 2006, two thirds of us exercised at least once a week and almost 43 percent of us participated in sport three or more times a week. These numbers should be treated with caution as they are based on self-completed survey forms. We all tend to exercise more when filling out survey forms.

As with most things, money may be a more reliable indicator. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, between 1998 and 2004, we spent almost 20 percent more on physical activity including a whopping 92 percent increase in the number of gym memberships we purchased. 

Even in the US, where all kinds of unwelcome records are being set for obesity, the figures don’t match the spin. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of students participating in high school athletics has just increased for the 19th consecutive year. And it’s not just the kids. Like us, their parents have been spending up big on sports gear. Sporting apparel sales are up 35.3 percent since 2000 and sports shoe sales are up 44.2 percent. Sports equipment sales more than doubled between 1990 and 2008 (from $30b to almost $70b).

Perhaps we are just enrolling in gyms and filling our cupboards with gym equipment and gear to make us look like we exercise – it happens. A better test would be a fitness activity that we pay for only when it is really used. Personal training is a very high growth industry in the US and Australia. In 1999 there were 127,310 personal trainers in the US. That figure had almost doubled to 219,990 in 2007. Australian data shows a similar trend. In the 2006 census, 13,800 people said there were employed as fitness instructors up from 7,669 in the 1996 census.

The numbers don’t lie. Most of us are exercising much more than we used to, but we’re still getting fatter at an alarming rate. If only being thin were simply a matter of running around the corridors of power for an extra half an hour a day.

The problem with exercise is that it just doesn’t burn that many calories. And any calories that it does use are very easily replaced with very small changes in diet. A quick bit of maths on a calorie counter tells us that the average overweight pollie will burn up to 100 more Calories in their daily 30 minutes of moderate exercise than they would have if they had been sitting in Parliament. The small packet of Chico Babies that Premier Bligh likes to keep in her ministerial car contains almost five day’s worth of Calories at that burn rate. So why not skip the Chicos and the two and half hours of jogging and call it a day?

Even in the 1940s, doctors supported the self evident proposition that if you exercise more you will eat more. Most of the medical profession quite logically suggested that bed rest was more likely than exercise to help with obesity. One leading medical textbook at the time even famously quoted a study which showed that lumberjacks ate twice as much as tailors and concluded that ‘Vigorous muscle exercise usually results in immediate demand for a large meal’. It shouldn’t then come as much of surprise that study after study since then has failed to establish any direct link at all between weight loss and exercise.

This message was hijacked in 1960’s by influential French-American Nutritionist, Jean Mayer. Aided and abetted by the newly created sports shoe and sports clothing industries, the ‘exercise makes you thin’ message gained momentum to the point where today we are faced with incessant state sponsored cajoling towards exercise as a solution to our obesity problem.

Logic says exercising to lose weight shouldn’t work and science backs that up, but neither is relevant to a politician wanting to look like they are doing something. But before Captain Bligh sends us all for a long walk on a short plank for failing a fat fold test, let’s take a look at what the research really says. Exercise won’t stop you getting fatter but being choosy about what you put in your mouth very definitely will.

Published in The Australian

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • wise23girl says:

    Trouble is I am not sure they really want to know.
    But in spite of that I think the fructose fighters are gaining ground thanks to our fearless leader David and his bunch of “losing excess weight ” merry makers (sounds better than the tried and true men and women) Marg

  • Alex says:

    I love this blog, but this post is a bit weak. Exercise has a enormous, and well researched range of benefits which are probably more significant than being overweight (if not obese) in terms of overall health impact. The “skinny-fat” phenomenon where there are rake thin (mainly girls or boys in skinny leg jeans) people who are unfit, unhealthy and unlikely to live long and productive lives.

    And exercise, particularly strength-training, does have important metabolic and anabolic effects.

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