The Snowball Effect

Lots of things about life are just not fair. Here’s another one: People who are fit burn fat more efficiently.

Yes, that’s right. People who have less body fat to burn, burn it better. That’s one of the discoveries of a recent study that looked at how exercise alters our bodies on a deep molecular level.

Exactly why exercise is good for us has been something of a mystery, it seems. Scientists could account for some of the good effects, but not all of them. But this study opened a window to the metabolic effects of exercise. Your metabolism is, in a nutshell, all of the biochemical processes that keep your body’s cells running. If these chemical processes don’t work right, then you don’t work right. You may even die.

Now, scientists from Harvard University, and other hallowed institutions, have been able to pinpoint how our metabolisms change before and after we exercise. They took blood samples from three groups of people:

  • Most fit: A group of runners who had finished the 2006 Boston Marathon
  • Medium fit: Normal, healthy adults
  • Least fit: Adults with shortness of breath or suspected coronary artery disease (who had been referred for exercise testing)

After 10 minutes of exercise (jogging on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike) all three groups showed evidence that they were burning fat. The more fit the group, the more fat they appeared to be burning. Further lab work (involving mouse muscle cells and lab dishes) revealed chain-reaction effects that could improve regulation of blood levels of fatty acids and glucose (sugar).

Although the researchers said more studies are needed, they were excited by the possible implications of what they found with this study. Basically, being fit may change how well your body burns fat and controls levels of cholesterol and blood sugar. Since elevated cholesterol and blood sugar are both linked to heart disease, these finding may fill in the missing pieces in the puzzle of why exercise reduces the risk of heart problems.

I found this study particularly interesting in light of recent articles (in mainstream publications like Time and New York Magazine as well as scientific journals) indicating that exercise may not play as big a role in weight loss as previously thought. One comment that keeps popping up is that exercise does seem to play a role in keeping lost pounds off (i.e., weight maintenance). Indeed, data gathered from participants in the National Weight Control Registry (of which I am one), shows that most successful weight loss maintainers exercise about an hour a day.

What exercise does not do is give you a license to eat whatever you want. Exercise (as most of us do it) does not burn as many calories as you think. Just because Olympic swimmers and Tour de France cyclists must eat 10,000 (or so) calories a day to avoid losing weight does not mean that because you walked the dog you can eat fried chicken and a big piece of pie every day.

However, if you are eating healthfully and at an average calorie intake that doesn’t exceed the average number of calories you burn, then adopting and maintaining a habit of regular exercise will, over time, make you fitter and better able to burn excess fat, if you have some, or at least keep excess fat from taking hold.

Good health has no shortcuts…it’s a lifestyle. The more you invest in your health with your actions, the greater the rewards. That’s the Snowball Effect!

Moderate portions of healthy food + regular daily exercise = A Healthier You