Alan Tichenal and Joannie Dobbs

Health Options


Gentle movements burn
more calories than pills

Everyone knows exercise burns more calories than just sitting or lying around. But exercise requires effort and motivation, especially if you haven't been active for a while. Isn't there an easier way to lose weight?

Question: Should you try one of those "natural" herbal products that claim to deliver rapid weight loss?

Answer: Herbal products may be tempting, but their claims are greatly overblown. One product that calls itself "The No. 1 Diet Supplement in America," claims that clinical studies have proved its effectiveness. Test subjects had 759 percent greater weight loss than those taking a placebo. Of course, they don't tell you how much weight was lost. If the control group lost 1 ounce and the supplement group lost 7.59 ounces (about half a pound), that would be 759 percent more, but an insignificant amount of loss.

Last week, at the American College of Sports Medicine annual conference in St. Louis, scientists reported on clinical studies of this product and others like it. In one study, the product above was given to nine people, along with the type of light meal that people commonly take with the product. They found that the product had no more effect than the placebo on calories expended at rest by the test subjects.

A couple of other studies looked at the effect of doses of caffeine and ephedrine in both herbal and synthetic forms. These studies tested the effect of the supplements on resting metabolic rate, a measure of calories burned while the person is at rest. Resting metabolic rate is the energy needed by the heart, lungs, brain and other body parts just to stay alive. No meal was eaten. Under these conditions, the calories burned at rest increased above the placebo groups by 4 to 8 percent for as long as three hours.

Q: How does the effect of these herbal pills compare to the effect of exercise?

A: Even minimal movements increase calories burned more than these pills. Typical resting metabolic rate for a 150-pound person is 1.5 calories per minute. An 8-percent boost via pills increases calories expended to 1.6 per minute.

If this person just sat up and did some writing, the rate of burning calories would go up to about 2 calories per minute -- an increase of 50 percent!

Q: How much can other easy exercises increase the metabolic rate?

A: Before you go running out to buy some of those pills, think about this. It is rather surprising how much seemingly small activities can boost the rate of burning calories. For example:

>> Playing cards, 13 percent

>> Working on the computer, 20 percent

>> Window cleaning, 165 percent

>> Food shopping, 180 percent

>> Playing billiards, 90 percent

>> Golfing, 230 percent

>> Bowling, 340 percent

>> Walking, 60 percent (1 mph), 120 percent (2 mph), 180 percent (3 mph), 340 percent (4 mph)

>> Jogging 525 percent (12 minutes per mile)

Next time you think about buying an "all natural" diet pill, go play cards and you will burn twice as many extra calories. Better yet, wash some windows, shoot some pool, go golfing, take an easy walk or go for a slow jog and put those pills in their place -- on the shelf in the warehouse!

Health Events

Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., is a sports nutritionist in the
Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Science,
University of Hawaii-Manoa.

Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., is a food and nutrition consultant
and owner of Exploring New Concepts, a nutritional consulting firm.
She is also responsible for the nutritional analyses
indicated by an asterisk in this section.

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