31 March 2010

Don't give up your day job to exercise: the coming shift in health directives

The rumours have been coming for some time. And then there was that Time magazine cover story last Summer, Why Exercise Won't Make You ThinA flimsy article it was, claiming that going to the gym makes us feel virtuous and incites us to eat more. The article though does allude to the surreal amount of exercise required to work off those trendy coffee chain lattes. In recent weeks, the evidence has been mounting: exercise isn't such a great strategy to lose weight.
Last week, obesity expert Eric Ravussin told the National Post that “the amount of exercise needed to lose significant pounds is more than most individuals are capable of. ‘But it is more true for the obese because they could never achieve the level of exercise which could make a dent in weight loss.’ “
The article goes on quote doctors who disagree with Ravussin but a new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association now recommends that women work out sixty minutes per day 365 days a year in order to maintain their weight as they grow older. The study is cited by Susan B. Roberts and professor of nutrition and psychiatry writing for the Daily Beast.
Roberts says the conclusions of the study are “absurd”. She adds “can we finally get rid of the propaganda that exercise is a panacea for weight problems? Far from encouraging women to hit the gym even harder, a study like this should send the message that although exercise has many wonderful benefits, preventing weight gain isn’t one of them.”
Remember these recommendations are for women within their ideals weight range. Overweight women face even more of an uphill battle. (BTW, the answer is that we should eat less, not exercise more)
Ironically, evidence that exercise is good for your mental health is mounting. Soon we’ll need to change the adage from mens sana in corpore sano to a sound body housing a sound mind. Of course, mental health does not only rely on exercise. There exist social science studies reaffirming the health sciences the idea that exercise is perhaps a small part of long life and health.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes a study of a small Italian community outside of New York City. Back in the sixties was when people starting dropping like flies from heart disease (the generation of Roger Sterling in Mad Men) but anecdote after anecdote led scientists to study this small town where citizens did not exercise more or ate better than surrounding communities. If you haven’t read much about longevity, the findings of the studies will shock you: members of the community led healthier and longer lives because of their bond. The community came from the same town in Italy and every member in it lived safely in the knowledge that they would never be alone, they would always have support and they would never be abandoned. 
In his TED talk, “How to Live to be 100+”, Dan Buettner lays out the common traits between “Blue Zones” communities, communities where people live longer than on the rest of the planet. In every community, people take long walk and have a plant-based diet but the strong link between them all in the strength of the community and the central role that elders play in those communities.

Of course, scientists and busy bodies who like to tell other people what to do with their lives are afraid of such talk. We’re catatonic enough as it is and these studies are only going to encourage people to remain sedentary. I don’t know if other people have an agenda but I certainly do. I hate gyms. However, I like to play. I suspect many contemporaries of my age like to play as well but play has been knocked out of them. It is also true that many of my friends would rather (pretend they) go to the gym than make the effort of arranging their schedule for us to commit to getting together and plaingy a sport together. We used to do it at McGill, meet and play soccer a few times a week but life does take over. And while we work ourselves to an early grave and exercise and wonder why we're not keeping the weight off, we are not working towards what science is discovering to be the best predictor of health and long life: bonding, creating a community, taking care of our elders and juniors.

Having lived abroad and having been positively slim every time I know what the clincher is for me: Iiving in an environment that doesn't have food ads everywhere and people talking about their weight all the time quiets down atavistic triggers in me and I am, simply, less hungry. Some people overeat more than others but over eating is, clearly, a form of self-abuse. We know this and yet there is little evidence of health and government initiatives to tackle this. Telling people to eat less and exercise more is easier that tackling free speech issues over advertising, going after multi-billion companies who put unhealthy and addictive ingredients in their foods, and working on creating a society based on emotional fulfilment and happiness.

Still, I wonder why we never take the holistic approach. This isn't the government's fault of course but current measures are failing and not steering us in the right direction. Parents, instead of spending one hour at the gym, should play baseball and hockey with their kids. We should all play together. It’s high time we realise it takes a village to raise centenarians. 

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