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Study: Cycling daily reduces obesity - unless it's an e-bike

Research in seven European cities found cycling is healthiest way to travel, but e-bike riders' BMI was second only that of motorists...

A study of travel habits in seven European cities has found that people who ride their bikes daily have the lowest body mass index (BMI) of any class of transport user – unless the bicycle in question is an electric one, in which case they rank second only to motorists in terms of obesity levels.

The study was published in the journal Environment International under the title Transport mode choice and body mass index: Cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence from a European-wide study.

It was conducted as part of the Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches (PASTA) project, which is funded by the European Commission.

Among the findings of the study, which focused on Vienna, Zurich, Antwerp, Barcelona, Örebro, Rome and the London Borough of Newham were that people riding an e-bike had a higher BMI than those riding conventional bicycles.

 Riders of e-bikes also scored higher than pedestrians, people who use public transport and motorcyclists, and the only group they had a lower BMI than was car drivers.

The authors of the study, which was led by researchers at Hasselt University in Belgium, called on governments to make cities more bike-friendly, pointing out that as well as helping combat obesity, that would also reduce air pollution.

The study, which analysed the habits of more than 2,000 people in the surveyed cities, found that men switching from cars to bicycles for daily travel lost an average of 0.75 kilograms in weight, with their BMI falling by 0.24. Results among female respondents were slightly lower.

Co-author Dr Audrey de Nazelle of the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, said: “Travel by car contributes to obesity and also air pollution. In contrast, bikes burn fat and don’t release pollution.

“As well as promoting better health, cities that encourage cycling are giving themselves a better chance of meeting air quality objectives.”

Even when people only cycled occasionally, for example to on the odd commute or to run errands, the study found that they were able to maintain their BMI.

Lead author Dr Evi Dons of Hasselt University commented: “In this way, cycling prevents overweight people from gaining additional weight and it prevents those who are of normal weight from becoming overweight or obese.”

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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46 comments

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Hughmac | 5 years ago
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Found the article quite demotivating if taken at face value. Just starting using an ebike at 72 and already seeing the difference in my weight, fitness level and normal every day energy levels. Watch a video on you tube where a proficient cyclist compared a road bike to an ebike on a long steep inline about 6 kilometres - the difference in timing was only 5 mins quicker on the ebike but he was still out of puff at the end. Of course if you use an ebike on the turbo assisted setting all the time then the benefit is minimal but anyone who has fitness combined with weight loss in mind will like the normal gears on a road bike be used sensibly for the maximum health benefit. Incidentally i am 5 feet 10 196 pounds and have lost 5 pounds in three weeks by doing an average of 12 miles a day in hilly Perthshire. 

Anyone reading this article and thinking of buying an ebike to improve thier health might be put off and that’s a shame

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Simon E replied to Hughmac | 5 years ago
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Hughmac wrote:

Found the article quite demotivating if taken at face value. Just starting using an ebike at 72 and already seeing the difference in my weight, fitness level and normal every day energy levels.

I think personal experience is far more valuable than an internet article. If your e-bike is helping you be more active, as it is for an increasing number of people, then the benefits go well beyond just your weight or BMI.

News sites love 'bad news' stories. I'm not singling out road.cc, you can find conflicting evidence or opposing points of view about absolutely everything if you try. Last month The Independent printed an article about e-bikes which was almost entirely positive but the headline and intro in the print edition would have you believe that they far from a good thing as it was 2 days after an incident where a man riding one collided with a pedestrian.

It sounds like your e-bike is doing you a power of good so just carry on. wink

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Boltsy | 6 years ago
3 likes

Certainly lost some lbs chasing an e biker into London this morning.

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srchar replied to Boltsy | 5 years ago
0 likes

Boltsy wrote:

Certainly lost some lbs chasing an e biker into London this morning.

I have to admit that, even though I don't agree with derestricting them, the quick ones make excellent lead-out men for the silly commute sprint.

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muppetkeeper | 6 years ago
4 likes

I have a lot of bikes and cycle a lot of miles each year, I’m fitter than i’ve been for 20 years but last Friday bought an ebike!

No, I’m not hitting the donuts or looking to get fat, I’m looking to replace any car journey less than 10 miles.  

Obviously I can cycle 10 miles, but I bought the ebike as sometimes you just don’t want to arrive a sweaty mess! I’ve also fixed two panniers and managed to lug 15kg of food shopping home today.

My Bike gets charged for free from the solar panels on my roof and I’m dodging stupid parking charges too.  I’ll report back in six months and let you know if my BMI has risen!

 

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eBiker | 6 years ago
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Wonder how their research factored-in the 'age' issue(?)  Travelling around the world right now... and usage patterns echo those in Australia ie., eBike users tend to be older.*

Nevertheless my BMI (and my wife's) are perfect, eBiking 100 kms / week at home. That's ten times the distance we were cycling previously, on our other three bikes.  Sold one of our cars, in fact.

* I'm 71, she's 66 (tomorrow). Seeing even more eBikes here in Seattle than we do in W. Australia... and most riders are seniors... .    1

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Deeferdonk | 6 years ago
1 like

People commuting on e bikes are more likely to have a higher BMIs

Older people have a higher avergae BMI.

Therfore my conclusion from this study  is that riding an e bike makes you old.

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jcjcjc | 6 years ago
0 likes

Don't you know that you're my heeeeerrrooooo! 

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Yorkshire wallet | 6 years ago
6 likes

I reckon once you're into your 30s and onwards you're either fat and lazy or not. An E-bike won't encourage the fat and lazy to actually pedal because they are already fat and lazy and that mindset is predisposed to comfort, not 'fucking hell, the next hill is 16% and I'm going to really have to crank it....but I want to'. The fat bastard starts to fell the burn and hits the assist button. They'll never gradually fade its use out, they'll become reliant on it.

If I ever get an E-bike it'll be because of old age and the fact that physical deterioration will get me, no matter how well I keep in shape. Until then that next bit of fitness is a challenge.

People want to be 'in shape' but do nothing to get in shape. I get stupid comments at work like "it's alright for you, you can eat what you want". Yeah because I've done 100 miles in the last few days you lazy bastards.

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Deeferdonk replied to Yorkshire wallet | 6 years ago
1 like

Yorkshire wallet wrote:

I reckon once you're into your 30s and onwards you're either fat and lazy or not. An E-bike won't encourage the fat and lazy to actually pedal because they are already fat and lazy and that mindset is predisposed to comfort, not 'fucking hell, the next hill is 16% and I'm going to really have to crank it....but I want to'. The fat bastard starts to fell the burn and hits the assist button. They'll never gradually fade its use out, they'll become reliant on it.

If I ever get an E-bike it'll be because of old age and the fact that physical deterioration will get me, no matter how well I keep in shape. Until then that next bit of fitness is a challenge.

People want to be 'in shape' but do nothing to get in shape. I get stupid comments at work like "it's alright for you, you can eat what you want". Yeah because I've done 100 miles in the last few days you lazy bastards.

Good article here from Psychology today on why acting superior may be a way of masking deep seated feelings of in adequacy.

  https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/insight/201011/are-people-who-ac...

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Yorkshire wallet replied to Deeferdonk | 6 years ago
1 like

Deeferdonk wrote:

 

Good article here from Psychology today on why acting superior may be a way of masking deep seated feelings of in adequacy.

  https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/insight/201011/are-people-who-ac...

Thanks goodness you said 'may'. That's me excused then!

Hopefully you didn't post that with a feeling of moral superiority over me. What are you hiding?

Everyone is insecure about something. That's life. Even successful, famous people still top themselves when all seems great to outsiders.

I was fat(ish) from about 11-16 and I've never being fat again. Insecure? Maybe but I'd rather by driven to exercise than not as the years roll by. I'd never be happy looking the mirror and seeing moobs and a gut so I do what I have to even if sometimes that means cutting out certain things and cranking up the exercise.

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srchar replied to Yorkshire wallet | 5 years ago
2 likes

Yorkshire wallet wrote:

People want to be 'in shape' but do nothing to get in shape. I get stupid comments at work like "it's alright for you, you can eat what you want". Yeah because I've done 100 miles in the last few days you lazy bastards.

+1.  There are many people at work who delude themselves into thinking that I'm not fat, despite my large daily intake of food and the odd trip to the pub, because I have some sort of special power or have won the genetic lottery.  Nothing to do with doing an hour of decent exercise every day.  It means they don't have to take responsibility for their own lousy health - they simply aren't as lucky as me.

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Simon E replied to srchar | 5 years ago
1 like

srchar wrote:

There are many people at work who delude themselves into thinking that I'm not fat, despite my large daily intake of food and the odd trip to the pub, because I have some sort of special power or have won the genetic lottery.  Nothing to do with doing an hour of decent exercise every day.  It means they don't have to take responsibility for their own lousy health - they simply aren't as lucky as me.

Just like all the people who moan about the traffic on their way to the office, unwilling to acknowledge that they themselves are part of the problem. It's always someone else's fault.

If challenged they just come up with excuses (some valid) and won't even dream of considering possible solutions.

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CygnusX1 | 6 years ago
1 like

My hypothesis* is that people with high BMI from sitting in cars stuck in traffic jams, who then choose to do something about it (whether for healh, or jam busting) may opt for ebikes over regular bikes since it is less strain on their bodies.

If my hypothesis is correct, then e-bikes have resulted in a slight improvement in BMI for these car -> ebike switchers, and may act as a gateway 'drug' to unassisted cycling.

* (actually HoarseMan and cyanideBun beat me to publication)

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ClubSmed replied to CygnusX1 | 6 years ago
0 likes

CygnusX1 wrote:

My hypothesis* is that people with high BMI from sitting in cars stuck in traffic jams, who then choose to do something about it (whether for healh, or jam busting) may opt for ebikes over regular bikes since it is less strain on their bodies.

If my hypothesis is correct, then e-bikes have resulted in a slight improvement in BMI for these car -> ebike switchers, and may act as a gateway 'drug' to unassisted cycling.

* (actually HoarseMan and cyanideBun beat me to publication)

I was thinking a similar thing.

  • If people are moving from cars to e-bikes then it is an improvement
  • If people are moving from bicycles to e-bikes then it isn't and improvement

Also if e-bikes are a stepping stone from cars to bicycles then it's an even better thing, though I suspect it's going to be more like vaping where it is supposed to be a stepping stone from smoking to quiting but is more often just a permanant shift from smoking to vaping.

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Bmblbzzz replied to ClubSmed | 6 years ago
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ClubSmed wrote:

CygnusX1 wrote:

My hypothesis* is that people with high BMI from sitting in cars stuck in traffic jams, who then choose to do something about it (whether for healh, or jam busting) may opt for ebikes over regular bikes since it is less strain on their bodies.

If my hypothesis is correct, then e-bikes have resulted in a slight improvement in BMI for these car -> ebike switchers, and may act as a gateway 'drug' to unassisted cycling.

* (actually HoarseMan and cyanideBun beat me to publication)

I was thinking a similar thing.

  • If people are moving from cars to e-bikes then it is an improvement
  • If people are moving from bicycles to e-bikes then it isn't and improvement

Also if e-bikes are a stepping stone from cars to bicycles then it's an even better thing, though I suspect it's going to be more like vaping where it is supposed to be a stepping stone from smoking to quiting but is more often just a permanant shift from smoking to vaping.

Agree absolutely that the "goodness" of e-biking depends on what it replaces. And the analogy with vaping is apt, but can be taken further; just as vaping tempts some people who have never smoked to start vaping (because it's perceived as not unhealthy, and it's addictive of course), so e-bikeing will tempt some people who won't use it as a replacement for either cycling or driving, but as an additional, leisure activity. And even if we restrict ourselves to e-bike commuters, there will be some who switch to e-bikes from walking or public transport. 

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Simon E | 6 years ago
1 like

"men switching from cars to bicycles for daily travel lost an average of 0.75 kilograms in weight,"

That doesn't sound very much. When I switched from car to cycling for my 5 mile journey across town I shed 4kg in 6 weeks without any other changes. BMI went from 26 to 24.3. Currently 22.8 (using NHS calculator).

More importantly, it was hugely liberating and probably the best change I ever made.

I wonder how many of those using e-bikes now would have otherwise been driving a car.

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Awavey replied to Simon E | 6 years ago
0 likes
Simon E wrote:

"men switching from cars to bicycles for daily travel lost an average of 0.75 kilograms in weight,"

That doesn't sound very much. When I switched from car to cycling for my 5 mile journey across town I shed 4kg in 6 weeks without any other changes.

It's more than I've ever lost through cycling:( I seem to put more weight on in the summer when I'm cycling more often and riding more miles, and people usually claim it's because then your muscle weighs more than the fat you are replacing, so I'm always slightly cautious of claims cycling loses you great chunks of weight.

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bob_c replied to Awavey | 6 years ago
0 likes

Awavey wrote:

It's more than I've ever lost through cycling:( I seem to put more weight on in the summer when I'm cycling more often and riding more miles, and people usually claim it's because then your muscle weighs more than the fat you are replacing, so I'm always slightly cautious of claims cycling loses you great chunks of weight.

Muscle is more dense than fat, but the only way to put on weight is to consume more calories than you expend. Simple mass-energy balance.

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Simon E replied to Awavey | 6 years ago
1 like

Awavey wrote:

I seem to put more weight on in the summer when I'm cycling more often and riding more miles, and people usually claim it's because then your muscle weighs more than the fat you are replacing, so I'm always slightly cautious of claims cycling loses you great chunks of weight.

You would have to do a huge amount of upper body gym work (i.e. weightlifting) and track sprinting type stuff for gain enough extra muscle for it to be significant. It's more likely that you are consuming more calories than you are expending.

Yorkshire wallet wrote:

Everyone is insecure about something. That's life. Even successful, famous people still top themselves when all seems great to outsiders.

Yes. It is interesting to see how many great athletes, entrepreneurs, celebrities etc are driven to a greater or lesser extent by insecurity or feelings of inadequacy. Their success rarely makes them happy; if anything it brings with it even greater problems. But it's not only the rich and/or famous, this kind of insecurity is the basis of all bullying behaviour, whether at school or later in life.

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jcjcjc | 6 years ago
3 likes

Non-recreational transport mode usage was quantified using the question “How often do you currently use each of the following methods of travel to get to and from places?”, rated on a five-point scale ranging from “Daily or almost daily” to “Never” (Table S2). Modes considered were walking, cycling, e-biking (electrically assisted cycling), motorcycle or moped, public transport, and car or van. Subsequently, frequencies were assigned to each of the categories, transforming this into a days-per-month variable (“Daily or almost daily” = 24 days per month; “on 1-3 days per week” = 8 days per month; “on 1-3 days per month” = 2 days per month; “Less than once per month” = 1 day per month; “Never” = 0 days per month). For the longitudinal assessment, absolute changes in frequency between t<sub>0</sub> and t<sub>1</sub> were calculated. Secondly, a categorical variable looking at cycling frequency was considered: participants were categorized as frequent cyclist (at least once per week), occasional cyclist (less than once per week), or non-cyclist. Changes between groups were considered in the longitudinal study.

……

We mainly focussed on the extreme mode switch from car to bike, but also for some other modes near-significant effects were found. Although the sample of e-bikers was small, riding an e-bike was associated with higher BMI. This finding could complement a previous study that found that older adults with a higher BMI were more likely to be an e-bike-user (Van Cauwenberg et al., in press). This would indicate the presence of self-selection. In the longitudinal analysis, we hypothesize that more frequent use of an e-bike leads to a higher BMI through less regular biking. However, it is unlikely that all of the weight gain was the result of reduced physical activity, as e-biking still requires moderate to vigorous levels of physical activity (Berntsen et al., 2017; Langford et al., 2017)

--------

Due to the less frequent use of motorcycle and e-bike compared to other modes, confidence intervals were wider and mostly not statistically significant.

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FluffyKittenofT... | 6 years ago
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I'm less interested in the ebike thing than in the comparison between cyclists and pedestrians.  Is it because the groups aren't exactly comparable, i.e that the cyclists are more active generally outside the commuting?  Is it that they commute a much longer distance?  Or is cycling somehow better than walking even on a per-mile or per-hour basis?  How do cyclists and peds compare if you control for length of commute, either by distance or time?

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burtthebike replied to FluffyKittenofTindalos | 6 years ago
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FluffyKittenofTindalos wrote:

I'm less interested in the ebike thing than in the comparison between cyclists and pedestrians.  Is it because the groups aren't exactly comparable, i.e that the cyclists are more active generally outside the commuting?  Is it that they commute a much longer distance?  Or is cycling somehow better than walking even on a per-mile or per-hour basis?  How do cyclists and peds compare if you control for length of commute, either by distance or time?

It's probably the HIIT effect; High Intensity Interval Training, where you go like stink for a limited time and then coast for a bit, then repeat.  This pretty much describes cycling, with hills and traffic starts for the high intensity stuff, followed by cruising on the flat or down hills.  HIIT has been shown to have an effect on the metabolism far in excess of the calories actually burnt.  For most people, walking just doesn't have the same high intensity bursts and periods of relative calm.

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JF69 | 6 years ago
6 likes

Not that it was necessarily implied in the study above, but it's worthwhile clearing a misconception. 

Just  one sample/example is needed to challenge any hypothesis that using an ebike equates gaining excess weight or even " not good for losing weight". 

In my case when I returned to cycling after a long absence I started with a pedelec/pedal-assisted bike (not an e-bike with a throttle), often & confusingly also referred to as an ebike. 

 

I lost over 4kgs in the first few weeks. It could be that I was pushing it beyond the 25km/hr assist limit, & that the bicycle is very heavy; close to 30 kgs with rack, panniers, bottle & some stuff. 

 

The fact remains that I lost weight even though I wasn't technically obese to start with but quite overweight , & continued gradually trimming my waistline for over a year, even though my calorie intake actually increased dramatically. 

 

Although I have long since started switching off the pedal assist completely & also started to use a light road bike, the pedelec is incredibly useful for commuting, especially in formal attire in scorching heat; not to mention easing up the carrying of huge loads, especially for members of the family that don't happen to be in good shape. 

 

Hope this helps someone. 

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muppetkeeper replied to JF69 | 6 years ago
0 likes

JF69 wrote:

 

In my case when I returned to cycling after a long absence I started with a pedelec/pedal-assisted bike (not an e-bike with a throttle), often & confusingly also referred to as an ebike. 

hi, I think as the study was in the UK, they mean pedal assist bikes. We aren’t allowed throttle bicycles here.

 

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cyanideBun | 6 years ago
4 likes

@madcarew

It was as they follow edsubjects over a 2 year period (nov 2014 to nov 2016)

"An online questionnaire on physical activity, travel behavior and health was developed as part of the pan-European PASTA project (Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches) (Dons et al., 2015). Participants were opportunistically recruited in seven cities (Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Oerebro, Rome, Vienna, Zurich). "

"Finally, 10,722 participants entered the study on a rolling basis between November 2014 and November 2016 by filling out a baseline questionnaire (t0). In November 2016 all participants who finished the baseline questionnaire were invited to complete a final questionnaire (t1). Short follow-up questionnaires were sent every two weeks between t0 and t1"

 

But the details are behind a paywall. I just happened to have access to the whole article at work (  1 )

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madcarew | 6 years ago
3 likes

I'm not sure this can qualify as a longitudinal study, simply by asling questions at one point in someone's life about their life habits. That is an observational study and notoriously poor at providing reliable life-time information from a one-time questionnaire.  E-biking is I think a bit young to be drawing inferences on its effect on people's morbidity and other long term health effects. At this stage it would seem pertinent to draw the conclusion "e-bike riders tend to have higher bmi than cycle riders"

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cyanideBun | 6 years ago
6 likes

Actually, the authors say 

"This would indicate the presence of self-selection. In the longitudinal analysis, we hypothesize that more frequent use of an e-bike leads to a higher BMI through less regular biking."

The alternative explanation is that if you have a higher BMI you aren't going to jump straight on a regular bike but try something less demanding to get you started. 

 

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PRSboy replied to cyanideBun | 6 years ago
0 likes

cyanideBun wrote:

Actually, the authors say 

"This would indicate the presence of self-selection. In the longitudinal analysis, we hypothesize that more frequent use of an e-bike leads to a higher BMI through less regular biking."

The alternative explanation is that if you have a higher BMI you aren't going to jump straight on a regular bike but try something less demanding to get you started. 

 

 

Yes this.  An e-bike might well be considered a gateway into cycling, for those who perhaps don't feel they have the fitness for unassisted riding (sweeping generalisation alert) but want to get started.  Its a bit like measuring the BMI of those starting a gym membership.

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Hypoxic | 6 years ago
3 likes

Fatties ride e-bikes so they don't have to pedal because that would make them puffed, tired and uncomfortable... Nobel Prize material right there!

I've got an idea about another Nobel Prize potential study... If one was to exercise and use up more energy than one was shoving down their massive gobs, I reckon one might just lose some weight. I think $1 million would be required to successfully complete the study. Any takers?

 

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