Why Bother Dieting When You Can Strenuously Think About Exercise?

In theory, exercise complements a healthful diet. In practice, some people use a token amount of exercise as a get-out-of-dieting-free card—with predictable consequences for their weight.

A new Gallup poll finds a majority of adults saying they’d like to lose weight, whether a little (38 percent of respondents) or a lot (18 percent). The catch is, the wish to slim down is increasingly detached from real efforts to make that happen. If the only way to lose weight were to eat a lot less food, it would be difficult for non-dieters to fool themselves into thinking they’re making an effective effort at it. As it is, though, self-delusion is rife. The Gallup respondents who said they want to lose weight were asked to identify their preferred method for accomplishing this—diet or exercise? Among those who’d like to lose just a little weight, half chose each method. But those who want (and, presumably, need) to lose a lot of weight chose exercise over diet by 67 percent to 30 percent. Does that mean these people are vigorously working out? Actually, no. Among those who chose exercise as their way to lose a lot of weight, 55 percent confessed to getting less than three hours of strenuous physical activity in the week before being polled. That includes 33 percent who got none whatsoever. People who get dribs and drabs of exercise are able to persuade themselves that they needn’t get serious about dieting. It’s not so easy to ignore the amount of food you consume in a day; it’s easier than pie to kid yourself about how much exercise you get. In short, the chimera of exercise enables people to talk themselves out of the dieting that would make a difference in their weight.

Why do people behave this way? A recent poll by Harris Interactive points toward a couple of possibilities. For one, while many adults agree that obesity is a risk factor for some major ailments, such acknowledgment isn’t universal. When the Harris respondents were given a list of maladies and asked to say which the Surgeon General has linked to obesity, just 7 percent of them picked hypertension, 11 percent stroke and 44 percent Type 2 diabetes. Heart disease was the only condition cited by more than half of those surveyed (55 percent). The same poll noted that Americans have greatly reduced the incidence of two other risk factors in recent years: 86 percent always use seatbelts when driving (up from 19 percent as recently as 1983); and just 22 percent smoke cigarettes (vs. 30 percent in 1983). Having cleaned up their acts in these significant ways, plenty of people may feel they’ve improved their odds of avoiding an early grave, even if they’ve packed on 20 pounds during those years.