Why Exercise Rather Than Dieting May Be More Effective In Promoting Long Life

It is no secret that being overweight or obese increases your risk for a multitude of concerns when it comes to your health. 

Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and gallbladder disease are only a few of the life-threatening consequences of obesity. 

But, the solution to this problem may be different than what we’ve typically heard for many years now. 

I mean, if you’re overweight and at risk for such health concerns, the obvious solution is to lose weight, right? 

Maybe…maybe not. 

While weight loss certainly possesses real benefits to your health, scientists have explored this notion a bit further, and what they’ve discovered may shock you! 


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Exercise Vs Diet: What Does The Science Say

It seems that in the last several decades, as a society we’ve openly promoted the notion that being overweight means you’re unhealthy, while being thin means a person is healthy (at least for the most part). 

When you read the above sentence, the absurdity of this notion stands out quite a bit, doesn’t it? 

However, whether we consciously realize it or not, it’s true. Weight is often thought of as a measurement of health. 

But, the fact of the matter is, you can be healthy, or unhealthy, at almost any weight (within reason, obviously). 

How?

Fitness, that’s how! 

Most of you are probably familiar with the BMI chart or the body mass index. The body mass index factors the weight and height of an individual to determine whether or not they are at a healthy weight. 

Well, in recent studies, scientists have found that exercise, not diet, has proven more effective at lowering the risk of health concerns assoicated with obesity in those individuals who are categorized as overweight or obese in accordance with this chart.

That’s right…fitness, not fatness, is what made the ultimate difference in disease risk and lifespan! 

Now, we’re certainly not saying that health can be gained by ignoring nutrition, but let’s consider the reality associated with what most of us are accustomed to hearing and acting upon when it comes to weight loss. 

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve heard that calorie restriction and increased activity are two necessary parts of the weight loss equation. 

But, raise your hand if you know just how challenging it is to restrict calories for the long haul. 

Due to the difficulties associated with caloric restriction, this popular method of weight loss often leads to what is known as weight cycling. 

And weight cycling, or the continual loss and gain of weight over the course of one’s life can actually be more detrimental to your health than simply being overweight or obese. 

Then, aside from weight cycling, many individuals who primarily focus on weight loss alone often never reach their goal weight in the first place. 

Recognizing the bigger picture here, scientists looked deeper into the notion that physical fitness, not weight loss alone, is more effective at reducing the risk of disease and mortality.

In other words, this research explored the question: can most individuals be healthy, at any weight, if they are physically fit?

The short answer to that question (according to their findings): yes! 

Researchers found that physical fitness was, in the very least, just as effective as weight loss when reducing one’s risk of mortality due to obesity. 

While some studies show there are benefits to be obtained through weight loss in regards to reducing one’s risk of death, other research has concluded that there is no such association between the two. 

In fact, there seems to be more evidence showing cardiorespiratory fitness to be the greatest factor in lowering one’s risk of mortality, especially amongst obese individuals. 

One review of multiple scientific studies found that “fit individuals with excess body weight had a lower risk of all-cause mortality than unfit individuals with a weight in the healthy range.” 

Even ordinary physical activity has been observed to lower a person’s risk of disease and death, though not as profoundly as cardiorespiratory fitness (we’ll further detail these differences in a moment).

The bottom line, numerous studies have now shown physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness to reduce one’s risk of death with or without weight loss. 

Some examples: 

  • Resistance training and aerobic exercise have shown to reduce blood pressure in similar ways to weight loss. 
  • Exercise has been shown to improve blood cholesterol, blood glucose, and vascular function similar to, and independent of, weight loss. 
  • Exercise, or more specifically cardiorespiratory fitness, has been shown to reduce fat storage in the liver. 
  • Visceral fat, the harmful type of fat that surrounds your organs in your abdomen, is effectively reduced through exercise (even in the absence of weight loss). 

Though these findings are not indicating that we should discard the importance of weight loss, they do signify the need to increase levels of cardiorespiratory fitness as an effective means of reducing one’s risk of disease and death associated with obesity. 

In fact, a side by side comparison of diet vs fitness-promoting exercise showed dieting and weight loss to produce a 16% reduction in risk of death, while improving fitness levels produced a 30% reduced risk of premature death. 

So then, let’s take a deeper look at the type and amount of activity that proves to be most effective. 


Fitness Vs Physical Activity

Physical fitness seems to have become a term synonymous with physical activity and this just isn’t true, as being active isn’t the same as being fit. 

While it is clear that exercise boasts just as many, and in many cases more benefits in regards to reducing the risk of death and disease, it’s important to note that not all physical activity provides the same amount of benefit. 

Increasing the amount of time you spend being physically active can definitely benefit your body, but improving your fitness level, specifically your cardiorespiratory fitness level is the most effective way to reduce your risk of disease and promote a long life. 

Glenn Gaesser, professor of exercise physiology at Arizona State University, examined the benefits of physical activity in obese individuals. 

In his study, he found that sedentary individuals merely adding physical activity in the form of a walking routine incorporated in 30 minute intervals, 3 times a week, saw little benefit to their health, and some participants actually gained weight. 

However, in other studies involving overweight and obese individuals with severe health problems, Gaesser found that adding in exercise and improving fitness in these individuals produced significant improvements to life-threatening health conditions (with or without weight loss).

So, the goal is to increase the intensity of your physical activity to improve your body’s ability within your circulatory and respiratory systems to aptly supply oxygen to your whole body throughout physical activity. 

And, this doesn’t happen overnight. 

Beginner aerobic workouts, walking, jogging, swimming, or hiking are all great places to start, implementing a few minutes of easy to moderate activity 2-3 times per week. 

Resistance training also works to improve your fitness levels, as improving muscle strength requires work from your cardiorespiratory system to supply energy to your muscles as you train. 

The key is consistency and gradual increases in the amount of time spent in, and the intensity of, your exercise sessions. 

And, the more you exercise, the easier it is to increase your activity level. 

Improving your fitness levels through such activity helps your heart, lungs, and muscles work together, and effectively reduces your risk of disease and death, promoting a long healthy life…yes, even if your weight doesn’t “measure up” in accordance with typical body mass index guidelines! 


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