Sugar versus sloth: Which is worse?
‘Exercise can’t save us – our sugar intake is the real culprit.’
‘Sugar is to blame for obesity epidemic – not couch potato habits.’
Read headlines like these or scan the growing pile of don’t-eat-sugar books and it’s easy to think that skipping sugar puts exercise in the shade when it comes to protecting our health.
“We do need a strong message about reducing added sugar but we also need a strong message about the risk of physical inactivity because it’s contributing to 14,000 deaths in Australia each year,” says Trevor Shilton, the Heart Foundation’s spokesperson on physical activity.
“The high content of sugar and kilojoules in food and drink is a massive problem but so is the fact that 57 per cent of adults don’t meet the physical activity guidelines. With children it’s worse – it’s 80 per cent. But if we all walked for 30 to 60 minutes most days a week, heart disease would drop by 35 per cent, there’d be 20 per cent fewer cases of breast and colon cancer and 40 per cent less diabetes – it’s a good news story.”
Muddying the message about physical activity is our habit of seeing weight loss as the main reason to get moving. Add that to studies saying that exercise isn’t the weight shifter we thought it was and it seems like a reason to stay on the couch.
But this overlooks the power of exercise to prevent surplus fat creeping on in the first place.
“Preventing weight gain is pertinent to us all. TV programs about weight problems often show images of very obese people and it’s easy to look at them and think ‘that’s not me’ – but we’ve all got a pair of jeans in the cupboard that don’t fit any more,” says Shilton. “We gain weight gradually over decades – and physical activity is vital if you want to prevent it.
“But we shouldn’t equate the benefits of exercise with weight loss and we shouldn’t assume that if you’re not overweight you don’t need to exercise – a lot of thin people die of heart disease because they’re inactive or have other risk factors.
You might get disheartened if you start exercising regularly and find that after a few weeks there’s little difference on the scales. But healthy changes are happening – you just can’t see them.
“Physical activity has a direct benefit on your cardiovascular system,” Shilton explains. “It improves the health of the lining of your arteries and reduces platelet aggregation – the clumping together of blood cells that can lead to clotting. If you exercise with other people there’s a social benefit that can improve mental health too.”
“There’s a huge amount of evidence linking physical activity to a lower risk of almost every chronic disease and very good evidence linking it to a lower risk of all major cancers,” adds Emmanuel Stamatakis, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. “A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found that physical activity was associated with a lower risk of 13 cancers – it was a very large study looking at 1.44 million people in the US and Europe.”
Stamatakis also cautions against dismissing physical activity as ineffective for weight loss.
It’s true that there’s good evidence that, without restricting kilojoules, exercise doesn’t work for rapid weight loss or for weight loss in the short term – but that may not mean it’s not effective over the long haul.
“The reason there’s less evidence about its effect on weight over the long term is that the studies haven’t been done – it’s very expensive to run long term randomised controlled trials,” Stamatakis points out.
He also believes that for many people increasing everyday movements might work better than urging us into structured exercise.
“Since the 1980s the focus has been on encouraging structured exercise but that approach doesn’t reach everyone, especially people over 40 who need physical activity the most,” he says. “We need more long term government investment in making physical activity part of our everyday lives with better promotion of public transport or active transport to work by cycling or walking, for instance. Public transport forces you to walk more and stand more. If more people used it the roads would be less congested and people would be more likely to cycle.
“But the problem is only a tiny per cent of the health budget goes towards preventing disease compared to treating it.”
Which is why the Heart Foundation is calling on the Australian government to fund a National Physical Activity Plan to help get people moving, adds Shilton.
”This plan would include strategies for active schools, active communities and public education – 37 other countries have one, so why can’t we?”
Meanwhile, it’s up to us to make time for more movement.
“The overwhelming reason people give for getting too little physical activity is lack of time,” says Shilton. ”But if there’s enough time to watch TV for three hours, you can find 30 minutes to go for a walk.”
Liked this? Read these!
Got something to say? Get it off your chest here
The Juice Daily is a Fairfax Media owned website