Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why exercise still matters

One of Carol's posts pointed me to this TIME magazine article: "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin" and an accompanying interview on Oprah Radio. The author says that for many reasons, exercise can have no effect, or even a negative effect on weight loss. The reasons he cited were:
  • Exercise makes you hungry
  • Exercise makes you tired so you might not be as active in the hours you're not exercising
  • People "reward themselves for exercising with food
  • Self control can get worn out
  • Muscle doesn't speed up your metabolism as much as people think (only 4 calories per pound)
Over and over again, experiments show that people who exercise don't lose any more weight than people who didn't, for a combination of the reasons above. If you've been following my blog for a while, you probably see me as a good example of the "Exercise Won't Make You Thin" concept. Still, I don't feel happy and validated after hearing this, the way that Carol said she did (though Carol has lots of other reasons for exercising than to lose weight and has no plans to stop). I have a lot of thoughts about it.

First, one thing the author stressed in the interview that is important to remember: Exercise is crucial to good physical and mental health, no matter what its effect on weight loss might be.

Besides, the body isn't a machine. No matter how much people want to focus on "Calories In, Calories Out," there are a lot of complex things going on with the body that we don't fully understand. Our bodies are made to avoid drastic changes -- they can waste calories if we overeat in the short term, or conserve calories if we seem to be living through a very difficult time. Most of these experiments were short, lasting six months or less. Who knows what changes might happen over a longer term?

I also just don't see the author's point that being inactive is good for weight loss being born out in the real world. We can see evidence that people who are inactive tend to be heavier than people who are very active just by looking around us. Look at the contestants on "The Biggest Loser" before and after they got on the show. We can also see that people who are inactive and thin tend to look "softer," and people who are active and heavy have a more rugged look. I used to attend Weight Watchers meetings, and the few women who made Lifetime who said they didn't exercise looked like an empty plastic grocery bag. They had been able to get thin by restricting calories, but they didn't look the way I wanted to look. The few people who are thin and don't work out and look good probably are city dwellers who end up doing a lot of exercise just living their lives -- shopping for groceries and carrying them home on the subway -- this is the "French Women Don't Get Fat" idea.

I think there is a lot we can learn from this article, though. Obviously, rewarding or compensating for exercise by eating more is a terrible idea. Using a calorie-counting application can really show you how much easier it is to take in a lot of calories than it is to burn a lot. I did a one-hour Pilates class, which was "worth" only 163 calories. If I rewarded myself with a post-exercise muffin, I'd end up eating more than double what I had just burned. I very rarely think of food and exercise this way anyway. There was the time I bribed myself with the promise of a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha Twist to get in the pool, but that was a rare treat to overcome inertia and get back into the habit of swimming, not a regular practice. I generally do have a post-workout snack but that's because I have a small breakfast before working out so that I don't have food sloshing around in my belly. What happens more often for me is that I am careless about counting calories and tell myself it's OK because I work out. That's obviously something I need to change.

I don't find that I am less active when I'm working out: It's actually the opposite. If I sit around all day, all I want to do is sit around. If I get up and do something, I usually want to do more, unless I've overdone it. After Pilates yesterday, I had lunch and then spent an hour and a half pulling out two ugly privets from my flowerbeds and planting three hydrangea bushes. I find that after a few months of working out regularly, physical activity feels easier than if I am inactive. But the article is a good reminder to keep active and not spend too much time in front of the computer or the TV. For one thing, it's a lot harder to eat tortilla chips when I'm weeding the garden than when I'm watching Rachel Maddow.

Finally, I think that exercise does make a difference in my self-image. I weigh about the same now as I did at the beginning of this year, but I feel a lot better about the way I look. My body looks more toned. Even though I haven't dropped a clothing size, the size I'm wearing fits better. Plus, there is a huge benefit to setting goals for yourself and persisting in them through the difficult times. I watched Julie & Julia last night, and both of them started cooking because they wanted a project and a purpose, not because they thought they'd get famous. Training for a race can be the same kind of project -- it gives you a reason to get up and get moving every day.

Last but not least, I have lost weight through exercising and diet in the past, and I know I can do it again. I just have to remember that "and" and do it, no matter how much Oprah or TIME magazine might suggest otherwise.


  1. As usual, well stated. I didn't get the notion that the author was saying we shouldn't exercise, just that it isn't the magic bullet some people think/assume it is.

    The reason I felt so validated was that like you, I work off a lot of calories with my running/training and the expectation (from OTHERS)is that for that reason, I should be very thin. It sort of gives me the feeling that I must really be a glutton because I don't drop a lot of weight (really, ANY weight)by running all my miles. BUT, when I'm eating like I should be eating (which is not nearly often enough), my running will drop weight.

    Bottom line: No matter what anyone says, it's important to eat healthy, exercise, and BE healthy.

    (It was a one-size-fits-all interview/article and we all know one size NEVER fits all.) Great poost!

  2. For people who already exercise, I think the article is a good reminder, like you said, not to overdo it, by eating more than you are burning. I know that is a reminder I need from time to time!

  3. I assume the title of that article was meant to be "exercise won't make you thin if you only exercise." But I stand by exercise, for cardiovascular fitness, strength, and mental fitness. To say exercise won't make you thin is a cop out, running burns more calories than walking around all day even if you have all your energy. And calories burned are calories burned no matter when you burn them.

  4. Don't forget that exercise helps your body age better. You have less aches and pains if you exercise moderately all your life. Sometimes it is not just about weight loss.


  5. Great post! Exercise makes me look and feel more toned, which makes me more likely to want to eat food that's fresh, crisp, and clean. Also, I'm sure that exercise helps me blow off frustrations that I might otherwise be tempted to eat my way through. Exercise is proven to be a mood booster, which also makes it easier to stick to healthy eating.

  6. Beautifully said as always Jen!!! :) Personally I'd be lost without exercise in terms of my mental health. And sure it makes you hungry but I'd rather take a bit of hunger and some nice muscles than not exercise :)


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07