Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Say what? Why it's dangerous to say that
"exercise won't make you thin"

196.5 pounds
I want to take a break from my discussion of processed foods to talk about the Time magazine cover story about exercise. The headline with the article says, "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin," and the cover of the current issue reads like this: "The Myth about Exercise: Of course it's good for you, but it won't make you lose weight. Why it's what you eat that really counts."

The good news is that the main message of this article is that exercise as we know it—meaning going to the gym for 30-60 minutes a day—is not an effective way to lose weight, and that instead we should exercise all day long if we want to lose weight. This is the same assertion I made in my "Returning to Childhood" post a few months ago, and I'm thrilled that the study proves what I've been promoting.

But the problem with this article is that it sends the message—intentionally or not—that exercise is not as important as dieting when it comes to losing weight. And that's what readers—especially readers who just look at the cover and flip through the pages without reading the entire article—will take away from this.

That's an incredibly dangerous message to send because, though diets may help someone lose weight in the short term, they almost never work in the long term. In fact, 90%—yes, 90%!—of dieters gain back the weight they lose. That's why I worry about how many people will see this study and focus on dieting rather than exercise, completely ignoring the message about being active all day long instead of cramming all of your activity into one grueling hour-long gym workout.

There is also a big part of me that doesn't buy it. If you read my blog, you know that I lost 27 pounds over a seven-year period from 1999 to 2007, and I lost that weight primarily because I started exercising for an hour every day. Sure, I am a big believer in exercising throughout the day now, but back then, I almost never exercised more than once a day. And I certainly never dieted, so I don't know what else could have led to me lose those 27 pounds.

Maybe it would have been better if the article had claimed that exercising once a day is not an effective to lose weight quickly. That's something I could agree with. But I would also reassert that almost anyone who loses weight quickly is unlikely to keep it off.

From my point of view, a better study would have examined how few people who exercise—once a day or throughout the day—on a regular basis are overweight or obese. Because I think a study like that would prove that exercise of any kind does help us lose weight and stay healthy over the long haul.

Unfortunately, the study that was conducted only looked at the short-term goal of losing weight rather than considering what our long term goal should really be: to be healthy and not carry too much extra weight. Because what good does it do us if we can lose twenty pounds every few years if we are still thirty pounds overweight all the other years of our lives? The answer is obviously that it doesn’t do us much good at all.

And did this study really tell us anything new? It tells us that the fastest way to drop pounds is to eat less, but we all knew that already. What it doesn’t tell us is that weight loss usually doesn't last. And that’s because our bodies are, in some ways, smarter than we are—when we stop feeding them, they stop burning calories and begin to store fat so that we don’t starve to death.

The article also claims that one of the reasons that once-a-day workouts are not effective is because they use up all of our stores of discipline, thus causing us to eat more. This is, of course, presuming that those who exercise eat more. I don’t know about you, but I don’t eat more when I exercise. If anything, I eat less! Because exercising makes me happier, I am less likely to feel the need to “feed my emotions” than I would if I didn’t exercise.

In fact, you might have noticed that my weight is up to 196.5 pounds today—a number I was loathe to post here. This is 3.5 pounds more than my low of 193 pounds last week.

On Friday, right after my last post, my grandfather suffered a massive stroke. Of course, Dave and I got in the car and drove to be by my grandpa's side all weekend. (We made it there in time to see him, but sadly, he died yesterday morning—though I should add that, at 89 years old, he was one of the few people lucky enough to live a long and full life.)

The reason I bring this is up is because I feel confident that the increase in my weight is the result of the fact that I didn't exercise all weekend and ate a little bit more than normal because of the stress of watching my grandfather struggling to recover. This is why it's hard for me to believe that exercise doesn't help us lose weight—whether it's once a day or three times a day—since the numbers go down on the scale when I exercise and up when I don't.

Ultimately, I'm happy about this study because it confirms what I've been saying all along about the fact that we need to make exercise a more integral part of our lives—a part that we not only enjoy but also engage in more than once a day. I only wish that Time hadn't framed it in a way that makes it appear—especially with a headline that reads "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin"—like they are down on exercise and in favor of dieting because I truly believe that's a recipe for disaster.

Postscript: As my friend Neal pointed out in the comments below, The Huffington Post ran a similarly outraged response to the Time cover story. You can access it here: "The Real Truth about Exercise" by Jake Steinfeld. As Steinfeld says, "Those who exercise regularly are fitter, feel better about themselves, have less propensity for developing a chronic disease, and ultimately do lose weight. I was a fat kid with a bad stutter growing up. Exercise helped me lose weight while boosting my confidence and self-esteem. Exercise changed my whole life." I couldn't agree more since this mirrors my own experience, and I'll never believe that exercise doesn't help us lose weight in the long run. Steinfeld also quotes his a friend of his who is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic and says, "medical professionals ALL agree that exercise, as part of a healthy lifestyle, improves one's health and lowers costs to the health care system. Americans should be encouraged to do more of it, not less. Of this there can be no debate."

1 comment:

  1. Molly - thought you might be interested in this response to the Time article:


    I tend to agree with Steinfeld rather than Cloud (Time). The Time article strung together a number of ideas to come to a weird conclusion.

    As a marathon runner, I will say that it's tough for most people to lose weight just by increasing activity, you have to be mindful of your food intake. But I don't think exercise makes you go out and eat unhealthy food. And I don't think the main point of exercise (or even the main health benefit) is to lose weight.