Five Angels Dancing

Angels Dancing Make for Good Exercise

Do angels dancing on the head of a pin get good exercise? We’ll have to get back to you on that one. But we can say that thinking about the value of exercise for overcoming obesity is worthwhile. In the International Journal of Obesity over the last few weeks an excellent conversation about this has unfolded.

First there was a commentary by David Allison and colleagues reminding us that weight loss from exercise might be modest, but it is not nothing. Then yesterday, the journal published a response from Herman Pontzer. He points out that a careful review of the research on this question reaffirms his conclusion that “exercise has tons of well-documented benefits,” but it’s “a poor tool for weight loss.”

Finally, Eric Robinson and David Stensel published a response to both commentaries. They observe, quite correctly, that both Allison et al and Pontzer have good points to make. Exercise is not a great tool for weight loss. But it can be useful for dealing with obesity, preferably in combination with other measures.

“Both Sides” Matter

The truth is that both sides of this collegial argument matter. Seven years ago, Diana Thomas, Ted Kyle, and Fatima Cody Stanford wrote about aligning expectations for weight loss from exercise with the rather modest outcomes it can deliver. We wrote in Preventive Medicine:

“Individuals with higher weight status that believe that exercise is an effective way to lose weight are more likely to become discouraged when exercise does not lead to weight loss.”

So yes, it’s important to align expectations with reality. And mixed messages are very hard to convey without creating confusion. We’ll leave it to our readers to decide on the difference between poor effectiveness and modest effects. But the truth is that exercise has many benefits for health. It can be quite useful for dealing with obesity over time. But for the short-term goal of weight loss, it does not offer a big effect.

Perhaps those angels dancing on the head of a pin are doing quite well for themselves – it’s good exercise and they didn’t need to lose weight anyway.

Click here for the Allison commentary, here for the response from Pontzer, and here for the summation by Robinson and Stensel. For the earlier research by Thomas et al, click here.

Five Angels Dancing, painting by Giovanni di Paolo / WikiArt

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December 17, 2022

4 Responses to “Angels Dancing Make for Good Exercise”

  1. December 17, 2022 at 11:24 am, John DiTraglia said:

    “Exercise is not a great tool for weight loss.” contradicts “But it can be useful for dealing with obesity,”

    • December 17, 2022 at 4:24 pm, Ted said:

      Actually, I think not, John. Because maintaining a stable weight is a large part of the task of dealing with obesity. Losing weight is a part of it. But over a lifetime, more years are spent maintaining weight than losing it.

  2. December 17, 2022 at 2:44 pm, John Dixon said:

    Health care professionals and those living with obesity believe exercise is an essential component of weight loss. However, for most it provides a small perceived benefit. So it fails and drives stigma and supports internalized stigma. Our problem is that we focus on an inappropriate outcome Weight Loss.

    The benefits of exercise are extraordinary if appropriately applied and messaged. Exercise is all about health, and mental and physical function.
    Not weight loss,

    Let’s work on changing perceptions.

  3. December 18, 2022 at 8:20 am, Ondrej said:

    Is it possible that exercise induced weight loss is driven by the effect of exercise on appetite? (Even if energy expenditure is very low, exercise moderates the intake…)