If exercise and weight loss were a married couple, I’d tell exercise to file for divorce. “Exercise, weight loss is holding you back,” I’d say. “Before meeting weight loss, you used to be fun. People liked you. Now, people barely put up with you. Many avoid you completely. Your relationship with weight-loss is toxic. It’s time to leave.”
Why the discord? Although exercise can offer a powerful weight-maintenance tool, many studies have shown that as a stand-alone strategy, exercise doesn’t lead to substantial weight loss. This is because typical exercise constitutes a small percentage of the calorie deficits required for significant weight loss. If a 200-pound man wants to lose 20 pounds using exercise alone, he’d have to run the equivalent of a marathon each week for 20 weeks to succeed. Most people are unable to perform such exercise loads and, as a result, become discouraged and give up. But if that same, 200-pound man cut out his daily 32-ounce cola and candy bar, he’d lose the weight in just under 19 weeks without any other changes.
Simply put: you can’t outrun a poor diet. But wait — don’t stop reading. This isn’t a column granting you permission to stop exercising. It’s quite the opposite. While not a weight-loss magic pill, exercise still offers one of the single best things we can do to improve our physical and mental health. In fact, it is one of the few health interventions that’s repeatedly demonstrated over the decades its superiority over many drugs and procedures.
Much of the exercise research is summarized in the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Report by the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, which outlines the scientifically proven health benefits of exercise:
Lower risk of all causes of death in adults.
Lower incidences of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Lower incidences of bladder, breast, colon, endometrium,
esophagus, kidney, stomach and lung cancers.
Reduced risk of dementia.
Improved brain function long-term and immediately after exercise.
Improved perceived quality of life.
Reduced feelings of anxiety and depression in healthy people as well as in people with existing clinical diagnoses.
Reduced risk of weight gain following weight loss.
Reduced incidences of falls and injuries in older adults.
Reduced risk of gestational diabetes in pregnant women.
Reduced risk of postpartum depression in women who’ve just given birth.
Decreased osteoarthritis pain and improved function.
Reduced risk of death for those who already suffer from such medical conditions as cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Improved walking and fitness for those with multiple sclerosis.
Employers that want to effectively promote health in the workplace would do well to drop the “biggest loser” and exercise challenges tied to weight loss and instead promote exercise as the silver bullet of good health that it is. Consider these ideas:
Encourage process goals over outcome-based goals. For example, the average sedentary adult in the United States takes only 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day. A good process goal for someone in that category would be to double his or her steps five days a week for four weeks.
Promote fitness goals in which employees achieve such physical feats as completing a race.
Form teams in which each member contributes to a goal of walking the most miles over a certain time. Donate a dollar for every mile walked to the winning team’s charity of choice.
Hire a fitness trainer to offer individual coaching sessions for your team members.
Offer subsidized gym memberships.
Assess your working environment to determine what changes you could make to encourage more physical activity. For example, could you provide standing desks, create a walking path around the building or install an adult jungle gym outside?
Take an inventory of your culture and look for ways to incorporate more movement into social norms. For example, encourage and model standing during meetings and offer stretching breaks, walk-and-talk meetings and paid walking breaks.
Bring in experts to offer education about the benefits of exercise, myths about weight loss and connections between physical and mental health.
Implement a comprehensive well-being program that promotes physical activity in a holistic context.
Let’s all agree it’s time for exercise to say goodbye to weight loss and move on. There’s a much better match in town: health. And I’m betting these two will get along quite nicely for years to come.