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The problem ultimately is about not exercise itself but the way we've come to define it. Many obesity researchers now believe that very frequent, low-level physical activity--the kind humans did for tens of thousands of years before the leaf blower was invented--may actually work better for us than the occasional bouts of exercise you get as a gym rat. "You cannot sit still all day long and then have 30 minutes of exercise without producing stress on the muscles," says Hans-Rudolf Berthoud, a neurobiologist at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center who has studied nutrition for 20 years. "The muscles will ache, and you may not want to move after. But to burn calories, the muscle movements don't have to be extreme. It would be better to distribute the movements throughout the day."
For his part, Berthoud rises at 5 a.m. to walk around his neighborhood several times. He also takes the stairs when possible. "Even if people can get out of their offices, out from in front of their computers, they go someplace like the mall and then take the elevator," he says. "This is the real problem, not that we don't go to the gym enough."
I was skeptical when Berthoud said this. Don't you need to raise your heart rate and sweat in order to strengthen your cardiovascular system? Don't you need to push your muscles to the max in order to build them?
Actually, it's not clear that vigorous exercise like running carries more benefits than a moderately strenuous activity like walking while carrying groceries. You regularly hear about the benefits of exercise in news stories, but if you read the academic papers on which these stories are based, you frequently see that the research subjects who were studied didn't clobber themselves on the elliptical machine. A routine example: in June the Association for Psychological Science issued a news release saying that "physical exercise ... may indeed preserve or enhance various aspects of cognitive functioning." But in fact, those who had better cognitive function merely walked more and climbed more stairs. They didn't even walk faster; walking speed wasn't correlated with cognitive ability.
There's also growing evidence that when it comes to preventing certain diseases, losing weight may be more important than improving cardiovascular health. In June, Northwestern University researchers released the results of the longest observational study ever to investigate the relationship between aerobic fitness and the development of diabetes. The results? Being aerobically fit was far less important than having a normal body mass index in preventing the disease. And as we have seen, exercise often does little to help heavy people reach a normal weight.