A new study out of the University of Pittsburgh made the startling discovery that sedentary older people who start an exercise routine become more fit and burn more fat than people who diet but don't exercise. Apparently, the results made a big enough splash to warrant an article in the July 10, 2008, Journal of Applied Physiology. Subsequently, the article stirred the news media to report on the findings as if they were....news.
Here's a summary of the study: sixty-four people, either overweight or obese and with an average age of 67, participated over a four-month period. Some of the subjects started an exercise routine, some started a diet; some did both. The exercisers either rode a stationary bike or a treadmill, or they walked. The dieters cut calories to achieve a 10 percent weight loss.
The upshot? The exercisers burned more calories during exertion by the experiment's end -- in other words, their exercise became more efficient. The exercisers drew more on fat stores for energy than the dieters did and in fact, when the dieters lost weight, they lost muscle mass. The subjects who combined dieting with exercise nearly eliminated the loss of muscle tissue, burning fat instead.
One of the study directors, Brad H. Goodpaster, summed up the results: "The take-home message is that, even among older people and during a fairly short period of time, exercise produces metabolic changes that require the expenditure of fewer calories during physical activity. Exercise also allowed older people to more preferentially burn fat, which may be healthier metabolically."
How exciting! But really, where have Dr. Goodpaster and the various media moguls who printed the study results been hiding? In a cave? Even the average 10-year-old knows that exercise leads to fat loss, that once you start exercising, it gets easier -- and that exercise and diet combined give the best results. So the great advancement in this study is that now we know the same physiological laws apply to overweight people and older people as well. Wow! This kind of insight must be worth millions!
Why do studies like this one get funded? Why does the media bother reporting the results? Why are we stuck with ever-rising health-care costs? And whose tax dollars are funding such revolutionary endeavors?
The United States spends about $95 billion a year on medical research. It's bad enough that, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association, industry sponsors 65 percent of that research, mostly to prove that their products work. But think much of that $95 billion is wasted on biased research and/or meaningless studies like this one -- studies that cost plenty but that tell us nothing new or useful. It's enough to make you clutch your wallet in self-defense.
An Associated Press news release from 2005, commenting on the state of medical research in the US (as reported in a special issue of JAMA), said, "What emerges from the issue is a picture of an amorphous, mostly profit-driven system, where industry research focuses on existing drugs and lets discovery-stage research lag behind."
But there is a silver lining in the current study -- we have yet one more reminder to exercise daily, no matter how old or chubby we are. And we have yet one more assurance from medical gurus who publish in esteemed medical journals that doing so actually will enhance our level of fitness -- in case we didn't believe the zillions of previous studies that already have attested to these facts.