Saturday 25 March 2023

Lessons from my fat belly

The meniscus is the cartilage in the middle of the knee that stabilises the knee joint. In October, I bust both of them in a mishap at a friend’s wedding. I won’t go into details but it involved a dance floor, ten hours of drinking and Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again.

It was very painful indeed. I couldn’t really move my knees at all. I developed a silly walk. I would have to straddle stairs, wobbling from side to side. Going upstairs wasn’t too bad, but going down again was agonising.

Fortunately, I didn’t need surgery so all I could do was rest my legs and keep them as straight as posssible. So that’s what I did. It took three months before they got anything close to normal again. They are still slightly sore.

A week before the wedding I happened to buy a new suit. Putting it on again in February I noticed that the trousers no longer fitted me. I had got larger. For the first time in my life I weighed more than 13 stone.

I am not particularly weight conscious but 13 stone is too much. 12 stone would be perfectly OK. 11 stone would be ideal. 13 stone is officially overweight and it showed. I had, undeniably, a fat gut.

In retrospect, it is obvious what happened. My diet hadn’t changed, but for several months I had ceased to do any form of physical activity. I don’t mean exercise, in the organised, sporty sense of the word. I don’t really do that. Essentially, I mean walking.

When I got a phone with a FitBit-style app, I was surprised by how much I move around. Yesterday, for example, I walked 7.1 miles. That’s more than average, but I generally clock up at least two miles just walking into town at lunchtime to get some bread. If I go to London I will walk at least five miles.

This all adds up. According to the app, the 7.1 miles I walked yesterday burned 561 calories. Admittedly, I consumed more calories than that in red wine while in London, but then I would have done that if I was sat at home.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t eat more on days when I walk more. By the same token, I didn’t eat less when I was barely walking at all. The result was a fat belly, as the first law of thermodynamics would predict.

This is how people get obese. It happens gradually. They put on a bit of weight on holiday or at Christmas and never lose it. They just accept that they get bigger as they get older. They just accept that their old clothes will never fit them again. It is why rates of obesity rise with age.

You will doubtless be relieved to hear that I am no longer in the 13 Stone Club. I now make a conscious effort to do a bit of walking, I don’t eat cheese and crackers in the evening (as I am sometimes tempted to do) and I have lost more than half a stone.

The reason I mention this rather dull anecdote is that it demonstrates something obvious that is weirdly denied by people such as Henry Dimbleby, whose new book I reviewed this week, namely that physical activity has a major role in regulating body weight. One chapter of his book is titled ‘You can’t outrun a bad diet’ (a line nicked from the full-blown crank Aseem Malhotra). In it, Dimbleby asserts:

The idea that exercise is a good way to lose weight is not just incorrect it is actively harmful.

He accepts that Britons are more sedentary now than in the 1970s and even accepts that exercise is effective in preventing weight gain among people who have lost weight. But he thinks that everybody else who exercises just gets hungrier and eats more. All I can say is that this is not my experience. Perhaps it is true of people who work out in the gym. The evidence he cites is based on people who exercise, in the sporty sense of the word, whereas I am talking about physical activity - moving around - which, as Dimbleby acknowledges, has been engineered out of most people’s lives by labour saving devices and the decline of manual labour.
Now, you could argue that it is abstaining from cheese, rather than walking a few miles a day, that has reversed my weight gain, but that implies willpower, something that Dimbleby also thinks doesn’t work.

Libertarians always fall back on that same tired refrain - Education! Exercise! Willpower! - which we know to be utterly ineffective.

To which one can only reply, ‘Speak for yourself, Henry’. They are, in fact, the only things that have ever been effective.
Cross-posted from my Substack.

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