Physical Activity: So Much More Than Burning Calories

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“Just finished a seven-mile run – definitely earned the right to splurge at the party tonight!”

“I play tennis six times per week to keep my weight in check and to be able to eat what I want.”

“Just gorged at my friend’s Fourth of July cookout – looks like I will need to hit the gym extra hard to burn all those calories off!”

The above are just some of the comments I have either seen posted on Facebook or heard in conversation over the past few weeks. While these types of comments are quite common and universally agreed upon, I have a problem with them for a few reasons.

There is an abundance of evidence that exercise improves one’s health. It not only has been proven to improve blood pressure, blood lipid profiles, inflammation, and heart health in general, it has also been found to help the processing of glucose and insulin as well. But despite all of these positive findings, there is very little scientific evidence that exercise is an effective way to control weight and that exercise by itself does not have as much of an impact on our metabolism as most people think it does.

In one study, a group of volunteers from a hunting and gathering tribe in Tanzania were studied to see if there was a link between their activity levels and the number of calories they burned in a day. While it was true that the tribe members were much more active than the average American, walking about 7 miles per day on average, their metabolic rates were about the same as the average metabolic rate for Westerners. That means that despite the fact that the tribe members were doing significantly more physical activity than Westerners, they were burning the same number of calories as Westerners. Their increased activity did not mean they burned more calories.

Aside from the problematic idea about using exercise as a weight control mechanism, the bigger problem I have is the common belief that exercise’s only benefit is to burn calories. I know so many people who run regularly, not because they love to run, but rather because they are repenting for their dietary “sins.” Whatever happened to being physically active because we enjoy the way it makes us feel? Whatever happened to playing a friendly game of pick-up basketball for the sheer fun of it? Or jumping into the pool on a hot summer day to cool off and splash around? So many of us view exercise as a way to punish our bodies into submission rather than as a way to feel more alive and appreciate what our bodies can do.

How about we start using physical activity as a way to connect with our bodies and enjoy what they can do for us? How about engaging in exercise as a way to improve our health and help our bodies to function at their best? Or taking up a sport for the thrill of the game? The benefits of physical activity are so much more than simply burning off last night’s nachos. And no one needs to “earn” the right to eat what he or she wants. That is no way to live life.

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