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Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin

As of 2009, more than 45 million Americans now belong to a health club, up from 23 million in 1993. We spend some $19 billion a year on gym memberships. Of course, some people join and never go.

Still, as one major study — the Minnesota Heart Survey — found, more of us at least say we exercise regularly. The survey ran from 1980, when only 47% of respondents said they engaged in regular exercise, to 2000, when the figure had grown to 57%.

And yet obesity figures have risen dramatically in the same period: a third of Americans are obese, and another third count as overweight by the Federal Government’s definition. Yes, it’s entirely possible that those of us who regularly go to the gym would weigh even more if we exercised less. But like many other people, I get hungry after I exercise, so I often eat more on the days I work out than on the days I don’t. Could exercise actually be keeping me from losing weight?

…The basic problem is that while it’s true that exercise burns calories and that 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 the weight-loss benefits we just accrued. Exercise, in other words, isn’t necessarily helping us lose weight. It may even be making it harder.

…Fundamentally, humans are not a species that evolved to dispose of many extra calories beyond what we need to live. Rats, among other species, have a far greater capacity to cope with excess calories than we do 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.

…Some of us can will ourselves to overcome our basic psychology, but most of us won’t be very successful. “The most powerful determinant of your dietary intake is your energy expenditure,” says Steven Gortmaker, who heads Harvard’s Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity. “If you’re more physically active, you’re going to get hungry and eat more.” Gortmaker, who has studied childhood obesity, is even suspicious of the playgrounds at fast-food restaurants. “Why would they build those?” he asks. “I know it sounds kind of like conspiracy theory, but you have to think, if a kid plays five minutes and burns 50 calories, he might then go inside and consume 500 calories or even 1,000.”

…Last year the International Journal of Obesity published a paper by Gortmaker and Kendrin Sonneville of Children’s Hospital Boston noting that “there is a widespread assumption that increasing activity will result in a net reduction in any energy gap” — energy gap being the term scientists use for the difference between the number of calories you use and the number you consume. But Gortmaker and Sonneville found in their 18-month study of 538 students 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.

If evolution didn’t program us to lose weight through exercise, what did it program us to do? Doesn’t exercise do anything?

Sure. It does plenty. 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 30% more likely to maintain cognitive function than those who exercise less. Another study, released by the University of Alberta a few weeks ago, found that people with chronic back pain who exercise four days a week have 36% less disability than those who exercise only two or three days a week.

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