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If you think that weight loss starts in the kitchen, think again
Would you prioritise fitness or fatness - losing weight or getting fit? If you are like me, you'd say better eating habits and more exercise are both equally important. We'd be wrong.
What is missing from our understanding of the priorities is that research has consistently shown that lack of fitness is a better predictor of mortality than being overweight. Knowing this, we can fine-tune our approach to becoming more healthy.
It's often said that weight loss starts in the kitchen. I don't believe that is necessarily true, but let's accept that it might be. If it is true, then it implies that to get started on your health journey, we should first sort out your diet.
The objective of sorting out the diet is to improve overall health and body composition - to reduce body fat. Improving health and reducing body fat is the everyday accepted way to set yourself up for fewer medical complications and hopefully, a longer life.
In other words, losing weight has become the accepted mental model of what "getting in shape means".
Unfortunately, this is not consistent with the best way, as found by science.
We'd be better off to carry some flab and be fit than be ripped and unfit. There is no correlation between looking good in a t-shirt and fitness. The former you can get from sitting on a machine, for the latter you have to make your body move as a whole.
With more fitness, you are less likely to die, even if overweight
Dating way back to 2002 researchers found that the strongest predictor of mortality - among weight, medical history, existing complications, e.g. diabetes - is exercise capacity.
That is, people who can sustain higher levels of exercise intensity are more likely to live longer than those who can only sustain lower levels of intensity.
Remarkably, just incrementally increasing our exercise intensity - and maintaining it in our lifestyle - lowers the mortality risk. Each 1-MET increase in regular exercise capacity lowers the risk of mortality by 14%.
In a study "Fitness Versus Fatness" (2014) published in Progress in Cardiovascular Disease researchers found that "overweight and obese-fit individuals had similar mortality risks as normal weight-fit individuals". They suggested that a focus on physical activity and fitness-based interventions rather than weight-loss driven approaches as the preferred approach to reducing mortality risk.
But as a caution here, this study (2019) found that all-cause mortality was worse for a random sample of healthy obese people than healthy non-obese people. In this study "healthy" meant metabolically healthy - having good medical health data - blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, stress etc. They didn't measure exercise capacity, but the study results imply that if you are unfit, then it is better to be a healthy weight.
This article on the Harvard Health blog outlines the dangers of visceral fat and being overweight.
Inactivity leads to more inactivity and cognitive decline
We know that a low inclination to exercise contributes to a downward spiral of inactivity, which is debilitating in the elderly and an actual cause of many chronic diseases. That's why low physical performance is a predictor of both mortality and morbidity.
Having a low inclination to exercise starts a vicious cycle because as we allow the physiological processes which enable sustained exercise to run down they become less efficient.
For example, the process of oxygen transport from the atmosphere to the lungs, into blood, to the muscles (where is it used to make energy) becomes less efficient and less effective. This loss of capability makes exercising feel more strenuous, and this discourages people from continuing.
Getting started with exercise is a powerful way to set the stage of long-term maintenance of weight loss.
This study (2017) found that The Biggest Loser contestants who maintained the most weight loss after 6 years had increased their physical activity by 5 times more than the "weight regainers".
More recently, in 2020 this study established for the first time a practical predictive relationship between physical fitness and mental acuity in older adults. The participants undertook a standardised series of physical tests, and completed the Mini-Mental State Examination (a widely used test of cognitive function among the elderly). The results showed a clear positive association between physical fitness and cognitive fitness - which is exciting.
How to get started, if you don’t exercise now
If you are overweight, then take care when starting an exercise program. Take advice from your medical professional.
An easy way is to start exercising is by walking:
As a beginner, you will find that the above simple "intermittent exercise" walking will improve your fitness. After about three months, you will feel the difference, and very likely, your family and friends will notice the difference in you.
This is a great way to start your journey towards fitness, and the next step is to work on your nutrition and to develop healthy food habits. These together will improve your capacity to live longer better.
Your mind responds to exercise, let it lead you to healthy eating
In my experience, the satisfaction which flows from getting your physical activity going feeds over into a desire to develop better eating habits. This is why I don't subscribe to the idea that "weight loss starts in the kitchen".
Weight loss starts in your mind, and to prime your mind with a sense of achievement start exercising. Your desire to eat better will follow. The goal of starting with exercise is to cross the finish line fit and at a healthy weight.
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Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter