The Men Who Made Us Thin (2) Does exercise really make you thin?

If you’ve not watched these on BBC and can access them on iPlayer then DO IT! They’re brilliant. But watch with a touch of salt, they’re not entirely unbiased…

The 2nd series starts by looking at a “fat burning masterclass”, this involves 5 hours a week of extreme spinning, but 1 hour burns less than the equivalent of 2 mars bars! Just 2 mars bars!! And it looked horribly hardcore (nothing like the tame photo below!)


So this whole episode explores the question “Does exercise really help you burn fat and lose weight?”

A metabolic health expert gave a simple answer… NO. He found that children who did vigorous exercise then compensated by resting, and this was the same in adult athletes; they had long periods of rest after intense training. So he suggests your brain is making you compensate, which is an evolutionary trait; you don’t want to unnecessarily burn calories. And 75% of the calories you burn are actually burnt while you’re just sat “existing” and no matter how much you try and burn you are severely limited by your metabolism.

Exercise does have health benefits but it’s no good for losing weight. So how did we get sold this idea that exercise was the cure?

50s America – A study looked at 28 obese v. 28 healthy children and found that less active children were also overweight. But did being less active make them overweight OR did being overweight make them less active? This study decided that you were overweight if you did less exercise, therefore exercise was the answer to all the weight loss problems.

Richard Simmons Hosts His Dance Class at Simmons Studios

Richard Simmons (above, and yes, he is that crazy!) was one of the first men to make money out of the weight loss industry. He had best selling book, gyms, weight loss cruises and built up a massive slimming empire. He also claims he’s helped humanity burn 3 million lbs of fat!! But for a lot of people there is method in his madness, he understands how overweight people feel about exercise so he offers the opportunity to improve individual’s mental attitudes about themselves and exercise.

The introduction of VHS into almost every home saw another gap in the market identified and exploilted. Jane Fonda brought fitness into the home with her record breaking exercise tape. It also increased the number of women who were braving gyms, and slowly women were outnumbering men.


So going to the gym twice a week won’t be making significant changes to your weight but it’s worth baring in mind that you are dramatically increasing your quality of life and there’s less tax money being spent on obesity related illnesses within the NHS. So it’s not all bad news, in fact, there’s a lot of good news! But not many people are inclined to go to the gym purely to improve quality of life and save a few tax payer pennies while they’re at it…

The next big problem: the food industry reinforces exercise as the solution to obesity. They promote the “do enough exercise and you can eat what you like” philosophy. Which is a great excuse when their products are causing weight gain in consumers, because it’s our fault if we’re not exercising enough to burn off the calories like they told us to!


Making an increasingly obese population thin became a public health priority, the pharmaceutical industry got involved and the increasing pressure to fix weight loss and health problems meant drugs were given licenses without proper research:

– Amphetamines were prescribed in the 1960s as the first wonder weight loss drug, it helped you lose weight, increased your energy levels but it was also very addictive so that got banned as a slimming aid in the 70s.

– Fenfluramines were the next weight loss drug prescribed in the 80s. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the USA, however, it soon became apparent that it was causing fatal lung disease in patients. If you took it for longer that 12 months it was unfortunately a matter of when, not if, you would get pulmonary hypertension.

– Wellbutrin was an anti-depressant made my GlaxoSmithKline that had handy weight-loss side effects. It was promoted to, and prescribed by Doctors illegally and GSK had to pay out $3b after a huge court case.

– Orlistat is a more recent weight loss drug. It absorbed all the fat out of food so it couldn’t be absorbed into your system, causing a lot of horrible side effects that I won’t go into. But only 1% of people that managed to stick with it over a year and not get put off by the horrendous side effects on average only lost less than 3kg!!

The biggest problem we can’t do anything about: we’re all fighting evolution! We used to stock up in summer to help survive through a cold winter with no food, but now it’s summer all year round! A fat person in evolutionary terms is the survivor!


All of this does make you wonder, how and what, will stop the obesity epidemic. If anyone has any ideas, it’s a solution the world is waiting for, and it is ready to pay.

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