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Walking Combats Creeping Obesity

Some people are still unsure about the benefits of exercise.

“While exercise can boost mood, its health benefits have been oversold,” health columnist Gina Kolata wrote recently on www.nytimes.com. One of the problems, says Kolata, is that “those who exercise tend to be very different from those who do not.” They’re “less likely to smoke; they’re thinner, better educated, and they eat differently, than their sedentary peers,” which makes it difficult to know the prime mover.

All of the factors listed by Kolata are important, but exercise is the lead domino; see http://www.cbass.com/Biomarkers.htm .

Gina Kolata sells exercise short; she allows the trees to obscure the forest. Exercise has a systemic effect. Like tuning the engine in your car; it makes everything work better. Exercise enhances our ability to adapt to stress and ward off disease. The main difference, the difference that starts the ball rolling, is the willingness of people who exercise to make the effort to take care of their bodies. 

I believe exercise is undersold. We don’t appreciate and value it enough.

Miriam Nelson, a professor of physical activity and nutrition at Tufts University and co-author of an editorial accompanying the study on walking discussed below, sides with me.

Our biggest problem, according to Professor Nelson, is inactivity.

“Being completely sedentary is the most risky [thing one can do],” says Dr. Nelson, who served as vice chair of the expert panel that reviewed the literature on the health benefits of physical activity for the new Physical Activity Guidelines (http://www.cbass.com/GetMoving.htm ). “Any activity is better than nothing. That’s the really important message,” Nelson told Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter (January 2009).

Listen to the findings of the expert panel: Regular physical activity reduces the risk in adults of early death, coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and depression. Getting moving can improve thinking ability in older adults and the ability to engage in activities needed for daily living. 

We don’t always understand how exercise works—we’re learning more all the time—but there’s no denying that it can work magic. In one example exercise actually made old genes young again; strength training reversed almost 40 years of aging in six months: http://www.cbass.com/Mitochondria.htm

That brings us to the new study on walking. In addition to persuading many more people to become active and take better care of themselves, it might even make Gina Kolata a little less doubtful.

Walking and Weight Control

Kolata said in the same piece that exercise has also been oversold as an effective means of weight control. “If you want to lose weight, you have to diet as well as exercise,” she wrote. “Exercise alone has not been shown to bring sustained weight loss.” She has a point.  

Exercise does work best when combined with sensible eating. It works both ways, of course. Diet alone doesn’t work very well without exercise.

But, as we will see, exercise alone does work. 

“There is a large body of research on physical activity and weight loss,” Professor Nelson wrote in the editorial referred to earlier, “but little on the amount of exercise needed for long-term weight maintenance.”

The new study addresses that issue.

“This study is the first to demonstrate that walking has an independent protective effect on weight gain,” Dr. Nelson observed.

Researchers led by Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina, followed 4,995 men and women for 15 years to determine whether regular walking is an effective way to counter our tendency to gain weight with age. The results are reported in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (January 2009).

The participants, from four U.S. cities, ranging in age from 18 to 30, were examined initially and again at 2, 5, 7, 10, and 15 years.

The average weight gain for all subjects was about 2.2 pounds per year—30-plus pounds over 15 years.

“We found a substantial association between walking and annualized weight change,” the researchers reported. There was a dose effect. Participants who walked the most were most likely to lose or maintain weight: Two hours a week helped keep weight off, but four hours was more effective.

The greatest benefit was seen in women who weighed the most at the beginning of the study and walked the most. For the heaviest 25% of women, those with the highest walking levels were “associated with 17.6 pounds less weight gain over 15 years” compared with women who didn’t walk.

The walkers still gained weight, but the yearly gain was 1.17 pounds less than the non-walkers. 

For the heaviest women, each 30 minutes per day of walking “was associated with an annual reduced weight gain of 1 lb or 15 lb over 15 years,” the researchers wrote in the discussion portion of the report.

Men and women in all weight categories who walked were more likely to lose or maintain weight than non-walkers.

“Walking throughout adulthood may attenuate the long-term weight gain that occurs in most adults,” Dr. Gordon-Larsen and her colleagues concluded.

 This is a big deal. Studies such as this will motivate more people to walk regularly. Walking is a pleasant activity. It gives you energy and makes you feel good. It’s safe. Almost anyone can do it. And it’s free.

“If we can increase walking participation by Americans, the evidence is strong that we will improve not only weight control but overall public health,” Miriam Nelson concluded at the end of her editorial. 

One more important point: This study controlled for calorie intake. The researchers also controlled for non-walking physical activity. Subjects were not on a diet or doing other forms of exercise. The reported results were almost surely from walking alone. It’s fair to assume that the results would’ve been better if the subjects had eaten less—but they apparently didn’t. Add regular strength training, and results would likely have been better still.

Carol and I have been walking regularly for more than 30 years. Walking works!

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