Could exercising really make you fat?

If you have spent the past decade or so slogging it out in the gym, putting yourself through your paces on the tennis court or diligently doing lengths in the municipal swimming pool in the hope of getting rid of those excess pounds — you may be wasting your time, according to some experts.

New research suggests that the link between exercise and weight loss has been overstated and in fact, if you want to get into those skinny jeans you will need to take a long hard look at your diet. In other words — and it’s difficult to say this in the JC— we need to ditch those fish cakes and knishes and stop eating such large amounts of high sugar/high fat foods.

The commonly held belief is that effective weight loss (which is a good indicator of fat loss) is a simple equation between calories in and calories out and that the latter should exceed the former. This may be true, but some experiments in America and the UK have proved that exercise has little effect because we reward ourselves with more food than we burnt off in the first place.

On top of this, we normally overestimate how much we have actually got rid of while exercising. To put it in perspective, 20 minutes of aerobics burns off about 120 calories, which is equal to a small packet of raisins. And every mile you run or walk is equivalent to about 100 calories, so a five-mile jog equates to a standard sized tuna sandwich. Add a packet of crisps and you will be putting on weight.

It's easier to say people are overweight because they are inactive

Dietician Luci Daniels agrees that the role exercise plays in weight loss has been overemphasised by the government as a convenient way to tackle the country’s worrying march towards obesity. “It’s much easier to say that people are overweight because they are inactive than to confront the main cause — which is eating too many calories, often from eating too much high fat and high-sugar food,” she says. “The food industry is a powerful lobby and has been slow to respond to the public health problem now facing the UK.”

She believes that people are not well informed about how to eat healthily in order to lose weight, although admits that progress is being made with better food labelling and healthier food being made more available.

“It’s amazing the number of people I see who are overweight and have a poor understanding of what is in the food they eat,” she says. “A lot of people eat what they think is healthy — especially in the Jewish community — but actually it isn’t that great for weight loss. They eat masses of fruit but they don’t eat bread or potatoes and they’re always hungry. I often advise people to eat more, so they are less hungry and much less likely to ‘nosh’ between meals.”

Celebrity lifestyle coach Carole Caplin, who runs the Lifesmart gym, argues that, armed with the right food knowledge (as well as plenty of willpower), it is possible to exercise without overeating.

“Education in the right food choices around exercise should go a long way to staving off the quick-fix cakes and biscuits, a pitfall some people fall into that makes it harder to lose weight when increasing exercise,” she says, adding that you should eat two hours after exercise but instead of reaching for the biscuits it should be “a meal that supplies the right nutrients, proteins, essential fats and complex carbohydrates”.

Bio-Synergy exercise coach Victoria Herman says that paying attention to the way exercise affects our metabolism and the way we absorb food is key to effective weight loss: “Different exercise regimes affect your metabolism in different ways resulting in different outcomes when it comes to fat loss,” she says.

“Choosing the correct intensity of training that boosts energy expenditure after training is key. You use energy while resting just to keep your body’s systems functioning and also during and after eating, in absorbing and digesting food. Moreover, muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue.”

    Last updated: 11:08am, October 29 2009