Want to lose weight? Why exercise beats diet pills every time!

Our fitness expert explains four reasons why you should make exercise your drug of choice. The side effects of exercise are all awesome
By James Fell
Girl stretching before a run Getty Images

Why sweat when you can pop a pill and the pounds will fall off?

Oh boy, am I ever glad you asked that.

There is a good chance there will be a new weight loss pharmaceutical on the market in the not too distant future. Called Qnexa, if it is approved it will be the first new anti-obesity drug on the market in 13 years. Weight loss pharmaceuticals don’t exactly have a stellar history, because while some can be fairly effective, they come with a series of side effects that has led to them being pulled from the market, lawsuits, and sometimes, never getting approved in the first place. Here’s a recent article I wrote that examines the history.

Qnexa also has a series of possible side effects. The only reason why doctors would most likely recommend anyone take it (if it receives approval for use) is if the risk of staying obese outweighs the risk of the side effects. Some experts recommend it solely for people who are suffering serious health consequences as a result of their weight.

But I have a feeling that, if it gets approval, it’s going to wind up in the hands of people who shouldn’t be taking it. People who are only somewhat overweight and wanting to lose flab for vanity purposes are going to get it, and they’re going to put their health at risk simply because they want to look better. Self-medication is nothing new. I can see people doing it for weight loss. 

Don’t do it.

People in the morbidly obese category are often that way for a variety of reasons, and even short walks can be a major challenge. Often, pills and surgery become last resorts that can get them to a point where they are able to make positive lifestyle changes that will lead to improving their health. If you’re not at that extreme then there is a much more appropriate way to drop pounds, and it all starts with exercise.

See, exercise has its side effects too, but they’re all good side effects. Actually, I don’t thing we should call them side effects because it still sounds negative. Let’s refer to them as “awesome effects” instead.

Why exercise is more awesome than diet pills

1. Your heart love exercise: A number of weight loss drugs can cause heart problems. Exercise affects your heart too, but in the most awesome way possible. A plethora of studies show the benefits to blood pressure, cholesterol levels, resting heart rate, heart recovery rate (the rate at which your heartbeat returns to normal after exercise) and general cardiovascular health. Every time you exercise and get that heart rate up you’re training it to get better at doing its job of keeping you alive. Winner: Exercise.

2. Exercise can make you very, very happy: Some weight loss pharmaceuticals can cause crippling depression that can even lead to suicide, and although they worked well for dropping pounds, they were never approved in North America as a result. Exercise, conversely, has been shown to be a mood-booster, stress-reliever and brain enhancer. In terms of combating depression or general bummer moods, part of this is believed to be neuro-chemical, but there is also the simple fact that exercise just gives you something to feel really good about. If life is getting you down, it gives you a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you are able to stick to a regular routine. Especially if you are tracking your progress and discover things like how much faster or further you can swim, cycle or run, or how much more weight you can lift, or how you’ve progressed to the more challenging fitness classes. These are things to be proud of that can’t help but make you feel better about yourself. Winner: Exercise.

3. Exercise is the gateway to healthier eating: With the exception of a weight loss drug that blocks the absorption of fat (which has some seriously gross TMI side effects), most work by suppressing appetite; they prompt you to eat less overall. Conversely, a host of research shows how exercise can act as a gateway behaviour to better eating. As you get better with exercise you build up your health-specific willpower. You are more likely to eschew junk food in favour of healthier choices that act as fuel for enhanced physical performance. What’s more, exercise works on the same neuro-chemical reward pathways as do things like alcohol, drugs, gambling and yes, even highly palatable food. When you sate your brain’s need for a “reward sensation” via exercise, then it not longer craves the reward it gets from eating ice cream. Winner: Exercise.

4. Exercise will give you a strong and toned body: Drugs help you lose fat. Exercise helps you lose fat AND build muscle. You’re not just slimmer, but looking way better than if you just dropped pounds. This is called improved body composition: tighter butt, sexier arms, flatter stomach… all of it. Pills don’t do this. Also, with the more muscular and exercise-trained physique comes enhanced physical performance. You’ve got more strength and energy for whatever tasks life throws at you. Winner: Exercise.

5. Admittedly, exercise does make you stink! Drugs beat exercise in one way: laundry. I exercise a lot, and I need to do a lot of laundry. Sometimes those clothes just smell toxic. I need to buy “sneaker treater” too. Winner: Pills.

Time is also an issue; many surveys have shown it to be the number one excuse people provide for not exercising. But when you consider how much time Canadians spend viewing television and Internet entertainment, I think you could cut into that and just take some “me time” to exercise.

So make exercise your drug of choice.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.


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