Exercise, Physical Activity and Weight

Many of my patients are struggling with weight gain in this year of covid restrictions.  Yet, many have also found time to exercise regularly for the first time.  At first glance this seems paradoxical.  But, when we look at exercise and physical activity and their effects on weight it all makes a lot more sense.

Physical activity is anything we do that gets us up and moving.  This includes walking the dog, playing tag with your toddler, housework and running out midday to get lunch.  Exercise is physical activity, but not all physical activity is exercise.  

Exercise (today we are focused on calorie burning aerobic exercise) is activity we do to raise our heart rate.  The goal of exercise should be to get your heart rate up to 50-80% of your maximal heart rate (you can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220).  

Both exercise and less intense physical activity burn calories.  

In fact the little bursts of physical activity we used to do all day long were adding up.  Picture my typical patient in New York City.  She started her day with a commute on a subway, bus or commuter train that included walking and climbing stairs.  Once she got to the office she had to walk as much as a city block to get to the restrooms.  She went up and down stairs to conference rooms.  She walked several blocks to get lunch.  Later, she might go to a meeting outside the office, a doctors’ appointment or get a haircut.  Finally, she would meet colleagues for a drink or a significant other for dinner.  On top of that she might go to the gym a few times per week.  

Then, suddenly, all that activity stopped.  

In March 2021, that same typical patient walks six feet from her bed to her laptop and logs on.  Even if she is exercising everyday it is probably for 30-45 minutes.  The rest of the day she is sedentary, often barely stirring from the moment she logs into work in the morning until she closes her laptop at night.  It is not surprising that her weight has slowly but surely increased ten or 15 pounds.  

However, even if she increases her physical activity, studies show she is unlikely to lose the weight she has gained.  There is little evidence that exercise results in weight loss (though regular readers know I am a big proponent of exercise for all of its other benefits!).  This is likely because exercise increases appetite.  

Exercise and other types of physical activity are key for weight maintenance.  So, keep moving! Make sure you get up from your desk (or dining room table or sofa) at least once an hour.  Do some jumping jacks or lunges or just pace your living room.  Follow the example of Sarah Hart-Unger and take your zoom calls on a walk when possible.  Or go for a walk with a friend.  Have an after dinner dance party. Do some errands on foot. Challenge your kindergartener to a race.  AND keep up your new exercise routine.

But, if you are looking to decrease the number on the scale you will need to focus on your diet as well.  You can find some tips for getting started here

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