Two weeks ago the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a paper which said it was a "myth" that physical activity could help prevent obesity. 213 news sources around the world reported on the paper's conclusions. None of these news sources have so far reported on the fact that the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which is published by the British Medical Journal, has taken the unusual step of removing the article. Those trying to read the paper are told "This paper has been temporarily removed following an expression of concern."
The BBC reported on the paper with the headline, Exercise 'not key to obesity fight'. The BBC called the paper's three authors "international experts" and seemed to imply, like other mainstream media, that the paper was a scientific study.
Lead author Dr Aseem Malhotra – who describes himself on Twitter as a runner – blamed the food industry for encouraging the belief that exercise could counteract the impact of unhealthy eating.
The Frimley-based cardiologist said: "An obese person does not need to do one iota of exercise to lose weight, they just need to eat less. My biggest concern is that the messaging that is coming to the public suggests you can eat what you like as long as you exercise. That is unscientific and wrong."
The paper – "It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet" – was the subject of an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. This has also been suspended.
At the time of its publication many fellow experts said the paper – and the resulting news reports – would be harmful to health. Professor Mark Baker, of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, said it would be "idiotic" to downplay the importance of physical activity.
Malhotra runs the pressure group Action on Sugar. The paper's co-authors are Tim Noakes, a paleolithic diet advocate from South Africa, and Stephen Phinney, a specialist on the low-carb Atkins Diet. (The "paleolithic diet" is known as the "Noakes diet" in South Africa.)
Science blog Retractionwatch said that Malhotra claims the paper had been suspended by the BMJ due to a "technical issue".
Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal, told Retractionwatch.com: "The article was taken down temporarily, mainly to address concerns about some undeclared conflicts of interest. It will be reposted shortly."
These undeclared conflicts of interest include Noakes – a long-distance runner – being the author of best-selling books such as The Real Meal Revolution.
There are many evidence-based studies on the links between exercise and weight reduction. In 2014, Public Health England said: "The link between physical inactivity and obesity is well established ... People in the UK today are 24% less active than in 1961."
Since 1961 Britons have become far more sedentary, walking and cycling less, and driving more. The World Health Organisation is currently warning that the majority of Europeans will be obese by 2030. The only country where obesity is not rising is the Netherlands, a country where cycling is still a major mode of day to day transport.