Role of physical activity in regulating appetite and body fat

Recent articles in the press have questioned the role of physical activity in regulating appetite and controlling bodyweight. These articles can be confusing and misleading for the public. Yet this is a complex area and there is disagreement about the importance of physical activity even among academics. Uncertainty and misunderstanding in this area may be related to the heterogeneity of the term ‘physical activity’ which encompasses sporting pursuits with extremely high levels of energy expenditure over prolonged periods of time, as well as everyday tasks involving much lower levels of energy expenditure on an intermittent basis. This latter form of physical activity includes what has been termed ‘non-exercise activity thermogenesis’ (NEAT). In the right circumstances, physical activity can make a major contribution to the maintenance of a healthy weight even in the absence of dietary control although a combination of the two is almost certain to be more effective. In the long-term, evidence suggests that for most people exercise is likely to lead to only modest weight loss. This may be due to an insufficient amount of physical activity being performed together with compensatory changes in eating and exercise behaviours. This is hard to prove because energy intake and energy expenditure are difficult to quantify in free-living situations. Individual differences in the way people respond to exercise due to both environmental (e.g. social class, education level, income, eating and exercise behaviours of family and peers, weather etc.) and genetic factors also contribute to uncertainty about the effectiveness of physical activity for weight control. Nevertheless, physical activity remains a vital component of a healthy lifestyle due to its positive influence on energy balance as well as its potential to reduce the risk of lifestyle-related diseases.