‘Diminishing Returns’ a Real Thing When it Comes to Physical Activity and Weight Loss


man exercisingIt’s safe to say most people try to be logical in their day-to-day lives, but many times things like emotions can get in the way. Logic would seem to say that by doing more physical activity, you’re going to burn more calories and ultimately lose more weight. Unfortunately, a new study is lending credence to the notion that the world can be just as illogical as the people in it sometimes.

According to Fox News, the study, published in Current Biology, found that while upping physical activity and exercise will of help burn calories to an extent, there is eventually a diminishing returns phenomenon. To put it another way, the human body will adjust to the levels of activity regularly performed and burn relatively the same amount of calories as someone who works out less.

An earlier study done by the same researcher looked at the diet and activity levels of people living in subsistence farming or hunter-gatherer societies and compared them to people living in developed countries.

“When I first got into this area with hunter gatherers in Tanzania, we measured daily energy expenditures and they were very physically active every day,” the study’s lead author, Herman Pontzer of Hunter College at the City University of New York, told Reuters Health by phone.

What he observed though was that these people were burning about the same amount of calories each day as the average American or European adult.

For the new study, Pontzer and his team studied 332 adults aged 25 to 45 years and tracked their energy expenditure through their bodies’ water elimination. The new study looked at people from Ghana, South Africa, Seychelles, Jamaica, and the United States.

By using specifically “labeled” water, they were able to measure how many water molecules were eliminated over time through urine, blood samples, or saliva. The body produces the most saliva when eating to help counteract acid produced by bacteria. They also measured resting metabolic rates by testing exhaled carbon dioxide.

The results they found suggested that at a resting metabolic rate, the average person burns about 1,540 calories per day. Increased physical activity can raise this number to about 2,600, but after that point the diminishing returns factor kicked in, meaning more activity did not result in any more calories being burned beyond that.

“The body works pretty hard to keep energy expenditure in check. I think this paper adds to what we’ve known for a while now, (that) diet is a more effective tool for weight loss than exercise,” Pontzer said. “You still need to exercise, I’m not saying it can’t help with weight loss, exercise is super important for your health.”

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