There are lots of different reasons why some people can’t exercise or can only exercise in a limited way. But those reasons are irrelevant because exercising isn’t necessary in order to lose weight.
Fitness enthusiasts like to say things like ‘You can’t outrun a bad diet’, and ‘Sixpacks are made in the kitchen, not in the gym’. In general, the approximate rule is that diet is responsible for 80 per cent of body weight, and physical exercise is responsible for 20 per cent.
A quite recent study showed that many people who start exercising will even gain weight — because of an increase not in muscle mass, but body fat (Sawyer et al., 2014).
This is because people tend to overestimate massively the amount of energy they consume while exercising, and then often eat far more calories than they would otherwise have done, reasoning that they have ‘earned’ them through sport. In addition, exercise increases the appetite. In a study by Fin- layson et al. (2011), 41 per cent of participants in an exercise program had such a large appetite after each training session that they saw almost no improve- ment in their body weight.
King and Blundell (1995) were also able to show in a study that their subjects had a stronger desire for fatty foods after a fifty-minute endurance training session than the subjects in the non-exercising control group. Although they had burned energy in the short term during the sports session, they overcompensated with a higher calorie intake afterwards. In the first six months of my weight-loss process I did no exercise — apart from 20 minutes of gentle training with a rubber resistance band to stop my muscles from wasting away completely due to inactivity.
Those twenty minutes of ‘training’ burned far less energy than an average inactive person burns in their daily lives, as long as they’re not stuck on the couch. I still managed to lose around 45 kg in that time.
My caloric deficit was large, of course (about 2500 kcal), but even with a moderate deficit of 1300 kcal per day, I would have lost more than 20 kg without moving a muscle. In many cases, it’s even advisable to wait till some weight has been lost be- fore beginning an exercise program, as sport puts a great deal of strain on very overweight people’s joints and cardiovascular system. Swimming is the excep- tion to this rule, since the buoyancy provided by the water takes the strain off overburdened joints.
But for very overweight people, going swimming can in- volve a huge emotional effort to overcome the hurdle of appearing in public in swimwear. For me, to be honest, swimming was never my sport.
Luckily, cy- cling and walking are also relatively easy on the joints. Being overweight can also be a problem for cycling enthusiasts, though, because it’s hard to find a bike that can carry 110 kilos or more.
Reinforced bikes are often expensive. I eventually cobbled together my own recumbent home bike by placing an arm- chair behind an old exercise bike. At that time, the saddle would have been strong enough to hold me, but the lying-down version was much more comfort- able and ideal for watching television while exercising.
But basically, for extremely overweight people, normal, everyday movement such as gentle fitness walking, or even just going for a stroll, is enough.
Even a twenty-minute walk every day — whatever a person’s weight — will have a hugely positive effect on the cardiovascular system. It’s also helpful in com- bating stress and depression. Exercise is generally a wonderful thing when it comes to health, fitness, and wellbeing, and it is absolutely to be recommended. But that’s true for everyone, whatever their weight.
Although exercising is extremely hard work for people with a certain body weight, there are certainly overweight people who enjoy sport and are passionate about it. For an overweight beginner, though, sport is more likely to be a torment, and these people run a greater risk of injury or strain. Incidentally, overweight peo- ple don’t find exercising torturous just because it is harder work moving so much bulk.
Recent studies have found that hormones formed in fatty tissue can influence the chemistry of the brain in such a way as to suppress the so-called ‘runner’s high’ — the feeling of euphoria that can follow after endurance sport (Fernandes et al., 2015).
This means that there are two hurdles for overweight people to overcome when they start to do sports, since they don’t even get the reward of the happy hormones that can help us to push past difficult moments during exercise.
The silver lining, of course, is that overweight people who take no pleasure in exercise can come to love sport as soon as they’ve lost some weight. The basic rule is that there is no need to force yourself to exercise if it really is
pure torture and no pleasure at all.
There is one exception to this rule: weight training makes absolute sense for people of any body size, in my opinion. There are several reasons for this: The muscles that are built up and/or maintained through weight training pro- tect the joints from strain, which is particularly important for overweight people.
Muscle mass can counterbalance the detrimental effects of fatty tissue, for example, by reducing inflammation processes. As muscle mass increases, it becomes easier to shift the body’s weight, making other types of exercise easier. And movement becomes more pleasurable in general, increasing the motivation to engage in other types of physical activity.
Muscle mass increases the body’s basic energy needs and so helps to stop those energy needs from falling too much due to weight loss (or, if no weight loss occurs, it even increases energy needs). Anyone can do weight training, no matter how heavy they are, how fit they are, or whether they have injuries or other factors limiting their ability to exercise — there will always be a ‘work-around’ for any situation.
Even people who are bedridden can help strengthen their bodies with regular, small weight training exercises. Weight training doesn’t have to be in a gym, nor does it require professional equipment: there are many sources on the internet or in libraries with advice on how to do simple but effective exercises in your living-room at home. That being said, a gym is not a bad place to start, as the training machines guide your movements.
And even in inexpensive gyms you can find trainers available to give advice and tips. For my part, for what it’s worth, I have never experi- enced negative treatment at the gym. The opposite, in fact.
Even when I weighed 140 kg, everyone there was always friendly, and most people were happy to do their own thing and pay no attention to others. In my experience, the fitness community is very open to newcomers and always willing to help or advise. Most people are happy when other people take an interest in their passion.
The bottom line is that exercise isn’t necessary to lose weight, but even with relatively little effort, it’s possible to improve your fitness levels and profit from an increase in your muscle mass.