Taking a headline, and running with it. Pun intended.

obesity, overweight
Moderation is key to a longer, healthier life. Sorry it’s boring.

Today’s award for the most unhelpful headline goes to the subeditors of the BBC with this little gem:

‘Exercise ‘not key to obesity fight’

So what happens is, if they want to say something they should say, they stick it in inverted commas to make it look like they’re not really saying it, when they’re saying it. Along the lines of ‘wasn’t me, guv’nor’. BBC, you must be so proud.

An editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine said that it was time to ‘bust the myth’ that exercise had a big effect on obesity. Naturally the reach of the BBC is wider than that of the British Journal of Sports Medicine – and the reach of the headline is far, far wider than the reach of the detail in the story. And that’s why headlines are risky, and need to thought about responsibly. Now we’ll have a situation where people think that the disembodied quote from three experts writing in a periodical they’ll never read is licence for them never to do exercise again.

But let’s look at it. Those experts are right in one sense – our diet is so far out of whack it dwarfs our sedentary lifestyle in how damaging it is to our long-term health. We like junk food, and it’s hard to avoid since it’s so cheap and plentiful. Those who are obese can have a tremendous effect on their weight if they cut their daily calorie intake from that of a pro cyclist down to that of a sedentary person (in some cases a drop in excess of 2000 calories). The other reason they’re right is that in those who are morbidly obese, really effective exercise is impossible. The first gains need to come from curbing intake.

But the key to success remains – a deficit between what calories you need, and what you actually consume. One of the results of exercise is to boost the deficit.

What was also not addressed was the fixation on obesity. I suppose it’s easy to fixate on because it’s so visible – but generally it’s not being fat that kills you, it’s heart disease, or diabetes that leads to complications, or a stroke or whatever. Obesity increases the risk of all of these. Exercise is great at reducing the risk of these. So exercise, whether you use it for calorie busting or not, is a great thing to have in your life.

The problem with obesity is the same as the problem with politics – we get hooked on the extreme – extreme eating, extreme dieting, extreme exercise, extreme left, extreme right. Actually there’s a sweet spot, and it’s at neither end of the spectrum. A reasonable diet and reasonable exercise will have you living healthier for longer. Yes, there are those who feel the need to eat a diet of raw wizardfruit and ground unicorn horn, or whatever’s currently trendy (I lose track); there’ll always fads and extremes – it’s just not where the success is.

Today’s message is just not encouraging. Exercise does work, and it works best when you’re paying attention to diet as well. People who are trying to make changes should be supported and encouraged, not discouraged by being told half the story. Moderation is something we can all do. For some of us, that’s a habit we need to learn – but that’s OK, recognising it is the best place to start.

Journalists: Be responsible

Experts: Stop trying to be extreme to get column inches

Everyone else: Be different, be average.

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