A new study in Pediatrics last week demonstrated that a 6-12 week exercise program in obese children and teenagers improved cardiovascular function quickly, even though it had no effect on body mass index (BMI). While longer term studies have shown regular (daily for 60 minutes) exercise is an effective tool to help people lose weight (along with consuming fewer calories), this short term study highlights two important points. First, regular exercise quickly improves overall fitness and endothelial (blood vessel) function, which is often impaired in children, teens, and adults with obesity and leads to hypertension (high blood pressure) and artery-clogging diseases like heart attacks and strokes. Second, it shows the limitations of exercise (in the short term, at least) in not having much effect on weight loss. Calories, it seems clear, have to be consumed in smaller amounts to have the desired effect on BMI in humans of any age.
Jonathan Chew says one large company doesn’t agree with the science:
Coca-Cola is providing millions of dollars in funding for a non-profit group that argues weight-conscious Americans should be paying more attention to exercise and less attention to their diet, The New York Times reports.
“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on,” says Steven N. Blair, vice president of the group, known as the Global Energy Balance Network, in a video. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
No compelling evidence? We’ve covered the compelling evidence previously on The PediaBlog which indicates that sugar-sweetened beverages are a huge factor contributing to these statistics: 68% of American adults are either overweight or obese; 33% of American children are overweight or obese. Over the past decade, these numbers have been pretty stable. One reason why might be related to the fact that Americans are drinking fewer soft drinks. The New York Times editorial board points out:
The beverage industry in general, and Coca-Cola in particular, have suffered from public health campaigns against sugar-sweetened beverages. Since the late 1990s, the amount of full-calorie soda drunk by the average American has dropped 25 percent, from 40 gallons a year in 1998 to 30 gallons in 2014. As calorie consumption from beverages and other foods plummeted, obesity rates stopped rising for adults and school-age children and came down for the youngest children. The epidemic is not over — more than a third of American adults are still considered obese — but trends are heading in the right direction for public health.
That poses potential financial problems for Coca-Cola. In its 2014 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company cited a multitude of risk factors that could adversely affect its business. First on the list was “obesity concerns” that could cause consumers to stop drinking sugary sodas, lead governments to impose new taxes or regulations and prompt lawsuits, actions which could “adversely affect our profitability.” Although Coke and Pepsi also sell diet sodas, those sales have also been declining in recent years, apparently because of fears over the safety of their substitute sweeteners.
Scientific facts threaten corporate profits, resulting in well-funded strategies to use false experts to misinform, distract and divert attention, and point fingers elsewhere. Where have we seen this before? Coca-Cola is doing what the tobacco industry did before (and continues to do in Pennsylvania now):
The industry has used a variety of tactics to spread its message — providing speakers for conventions or educational courses of dietitians and nutritionists, financing the research of like-minded scientists, and deploying armies of lobbyists to persuade cities, states and Congress not to crack down on sugary drinks. In a particularly brazen move, Coca-Cola paid dietitians to write blog posts or articles in February suggesting that a mini-can of Coke would make a good snack food. A mini-can of Coke contains 7½ ounces and has 90 calories. A regular 12-ounce can has 140 calories.
Still, improving fitness levels and cardiovascular health while decreasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke with exercise programs is a very worthy goal. Amy Norton consults some real experts:
In his practice, Muinos said, he routinely sees obese kids who already have high blood pressure. And exercise is an “important tool” in helping their blood vessels work better, he said.
So what’s the best way for parents to get a sedentary child away from the TV or computer? By being active themselves, Muinos said.
“For at least one hour every day, do something fun with your kids,” he advised. “Go for a walk, ride bikes. That ‘family hour’ is what works. It makes exercise a routine part of children’s lives.”
Church agreed. “I don’t think we have a childhood obesity epidemic,” he said. “I think we have a family obesity epidemic.”
As important as exercise is, Muinos stressed, a healthy diet is essential, too. “Kids need plenty of fruits and vegetables, and a diet low in starchy foods and sugar,” he said.
In the longer term, exercise and diet changes will probably trim obese kids’ body fat, too, Coombes said. They may also put on some muscle — so the number on the bathroom scale is not a great way to measure the benefits of exercise, he said.