Exercise won’t help you FATTY

fat me 2


September 2nd sees a parliamentary debate on cycling so now is the time to really understand what the true health benefits of exercise-based transport are. If we cyclists get what we want, the nation certainly will be healthier but surprisingly, I expect the impact on obesity will be limited.

The first thing I was amazed to discover is that being fat is itself a symptom, not a disease. This means fat people are not lazy, they are not gluttonous, and they are not at fault. Equally being thin doesn’t give you the right to judge fat people. Or assume that you are better than them. In fact just because you are not expressing the symptom of fatness doesn’t mean you are any healthier than someone who is overweight.

The fact of the matter is that being fat, is like having a label on you all the time that says “lazy”.  It is generally and wrongly accepted that fat people are at fault. They eat more than they burn, so their fatness is simply a result of a lack of self-control or laziness. There is a simple puritan logic to that, and that is why that idea is so pervasive. It also has the rather intoxicating benefit of letting thin people feel superior. But it turns out that this view is misguided and unfounded.  None the less it is so widely held that being fat is depressing. So if you are overweight then you either desperately want to be thin or you have found some way of putting up emotional defences and have resigned yourself to judgement from those around you.

As someone whose weight tended to be between 16-17 stone, I know how painful it was to always have your weight discussed and commented on by “concerned” relatives. Apparently it is fine at every family gathering, to tell the largest member of the family they have a problem. To hold their stomach and say, “you’re getting big”. But oddly not OK to tug the senior members of the family’s skin and say “the collagen in your skin is breaking down, you’re getting old”.

Other peoples’ judgement is the worst part of being overweight. It is fine to say: “you shouldn’t focus on weight” you should focus on health, but nobody does. If as a fat person you do that, you will still have skinny smokers telling you to lose weight as they struggle to climb a couple of stairs.

Exercise reduces your percentage body fat. It will cause you to build muscle and reduce some of the most damaging fats, e.g. those that reside in your liver. It will improve your insulin sensitivity, and it will do more to reduce your risk from heart disease than achieving a “normal” weight. If you do not have about an hour’s exercise built into your day, then you risk mental and physical impairments in old age, but don’t expect exercise to dramatically change your weight on the scale.

I know that people start exercising and they lose weight. In the short term that is quite easy to do. The problem is that in the long term it is untenable.  There is no single study that shows that exercise alone will cause you to lose weight. If you increase your activity level, then you will increase your appetite.

The issue with exercise and calorie restriction is that you are starving yourself. Although you are burning extra calories by flapping your limbs about pointlessly on treadmills you are also putting your cells into “protection mode”.  When you rest, your resting energy expenditure will have crashed. Typically, you will start burning 10% fewer calories at rest once you have lost weight through exercise, there by negating the extra calories you are “burning”.

The thing is we have come to think of exercise as simply being the “cure” to fatness. It isn’t. Exercise is much more important than simply a way of “burning” the “fuel” which is food.  Humans are not internal combustion engines. We eat food, we don’t consume fuel.

We must accept that sugar is an addictive and dangerous drug. It causes insulin resistance. This reduces sensitivity to Ghrelin which means you are feeling hungrier than you should be. So even though you don’t need to eat your brain is telling you, you are starving.  So all you can do is try to manage your environment. Don’t have sweets in your home. Tell people you work with not to offer you sweets and that you will get increasingly annoyed if they do.

“Sugar is alcohol without the buzz”. So if like me you have a problem with the amount you are eating, you really need to avoid sugar above all else. It is real easy for me to hoover up 3 bits of chocolate brownie at a friend’s birthday. Sound advice for an alcoholic is don’t go to the pub. The term chocoholic is seen as funny, because we think of alcohol as really harmful and sweets as innocent. But nothing could be further from the truth. They both have their problems.

Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Switch from sweet to fatty treats. Cheese and deli meat is not moreish, and it won’t make your insulin spike.

Here is where the difference is. Some people are addicted to sugary food, others are not. For some people cutting back on sweets is easy. For others it is as difficult as someone with an alcohol problem only drinking a small amount. Alcohol addictions have the side effect of bad behaviour. Sugar addiction has the problem of increased appetite.

Nobody wants to see improvement to the exercise based transport infrastructure in the UK more than me. But as a former very fit ‘fatty’, I can tell you that exercise alone is not the answer. I am sure that my 2hour round trip cycling to work knocked a couple of pounds off and meant my weight was 17stone rather than 17stone 3 but the real solution to obesity is to control the inputs.

Creating walkable and cyclable communities will reduce depression, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and strokes. Improving our ability to get about under our own steam will improve fitness, strengthen and our immunity to illness. But the lame won’t walk, the blind won’t see and the obese won’t get all the way down to thin. As a society we collectively struggle with our weight and the answer to that problem lies overwhelmingly in reducing the harmful effects of sugar.

The reason the evidence that cycling reduces obesity is limited is because it doesn’t.  We need to fight for improvement to UK cycling because there are many known benefits but we need to be careful about this obesity claim because it is the one that will let us down.


thin me


After (much less exercise than before)