Exercise and Bodyfat

I'm a firm believer that exercise is part of a healthy pattern of living. Hunter-gatherers had a word for exercise: "life". Getting outdoors and moving is one of the few things that differentiate modern humans from lab rats.

That being said, there are some common misconceptions about the activity patterns of hunter-gatherers and healthy non-industrial groups. They aren't (usually) couch potatoes, but they don't necessarily exercise a lot either. They range from very active to positively lazy, depending on the culture, the season and the gender concerned. Yet overweight is rare in all of them.

Consider the Kitavans. According to Dr. Staffan Lindeberg, the only overweight person on the whole island is someone who left for several years to live in a city. An average Kitavan man has a BMI of 20, which is very lean. Women have an average BMI of 18! A BMI of 25 is considered overweight and 30 is obese. The average Swede has a BMI of 25, the average American, 28. Kitavans have the activity level of a moderately active Swede, nothing more. They do the minimum amount of work required to grow their starchy tubers and fruit, and catch fish, all of which are abundant year-round. They are not restricted in calories.

Then there are the Tokelauans. Between 1968 and 1982, residents of the Pacific atolls of Tokelau gained roughly 11 pounds (5 kg) on average. This corresponded with a shift in diet from traditional Polynesian foods to a partial reliance on white flour, sugar and other processed foods. During this period, men exercised progressively less due to the introduction of the outboard motor, but the activity level of women stayed roughly the same. Both genders gained weight. Calorie intake didn't trend in any particular direction during the same time period.

Tokelauans who migrated to New Zealand saw a particularly large weight gain, gaining 22 pounds (10 kg) over the same time period. Their diet became even more Westernized than their relatives who remained on Tokelau. The authors of the Tokelau Island Migrant study felt that "most of the migrants expend greater energy in their work than is currently the case in Tokelau."

The "paradoxes" keep rolling in. In this recent study, investigators compared the energy expenditure of Nigerian and African-American women, using direct measurement (respiratory gas exchange and doubly labeled water) rather than questionnaires and observation. Here's what they found:
Mean body mass index (in kg/m(2)) was 23 among the Nigerians and 31 among the African Americans; the prevalences of obesity were 7% and 50%, respectively. After adjustment for body size, no differences in mean activity energy expenditure or physical activity level were observed between the 2 cohorts.
Are you bored yet? Here's another one, just in case your eyes are still open. I'll quote from Stefansson's Cancer, Disease of Civilization, referring to traditional point Barrow Inuit women in wintertime. The section in quotes comes from the anthropologist Dr. John Murdoch:
"They are large eaters, some of them, especially the women, eating all the time..." ...during the winter the Barrow women stirred around very little, did little heavy work, and yet "inclined more to be sparse than corpulent"
One last example. Americans have gained weight continually over the last 40 years, despite increasing leisure-time exercise and an increased energy expenditure. Our calorie intake has increased over the same time period, and the quality of our diet has deteriorated.

I think it's clear that the relationship between exercise and weight is not very tight. In my opinion, diet has a much larger influence on weight than exercise. Doing low-intensity "cardio" on a treadmill is almost totally ineffective for weight loss.

So can exercise help a person reach or maintain a healthy weight? Absolutely, but the type of exercise is critical. Exercise plugs into some of the same metabolic pathways as a healthy diet, normalizing hormone levels and increasing stress resitance. All you have to do is pop over to Chris's Conditioning Research to see a number of studies that compared chronic cardio (as Mark Sisson would say) to high-intensity, intermittent training (HIIT). HIIT is the winner every time by virtually every measure. Even though a person burns fewer calories sprinting on and off for five minutes than she does running for 30, she will still lose more fat and gain more muscle sprinting because of the metabolic shift that type of training produces.

In one study Chris posted, investigators compared the effect of two different exercise styles on fat loss and metabolic parameters. One group was assigned to low-intensity steady-state exercise, while the other was assigned to short 8-second sprints (called HIIE in this study). Here's what they found after 15 weeks:
Both exercise groups demonstrated a significant improvement (P less than 0.05) in cardiovascular fitness. However, only the HIIE group had a significant reduction in total body mass (TBM), fat mass (FM), trunk fat and fasting plasma insulin levels.
I think exercise is part of the fat loss / maintenance toolkit, along with intermittent fasting. But nothing beats a good diet.