Q: I just wanted to get your thoughts on this article?
A: For the record, I get at least three e-mails a month asking about this article. I avoid it because I know there’s such a huge attachment to the concept of “exercise” in this country – that being fat is the problem, therefore exercise is the solution… and it is our last hope because damn it, we want to eat the way we eat – and I remember the blog posts that came out against the article and the storm of people who were really concerned, and rightfully so.
That being said… I guess it’s time that I stop ignoring/avoiding the topic and just do what I can to tackle it straight up.
First and foremost, if the article were titled “Why Exercise Alone Won’t Make You Thin,” I’d be in agreement. I think we all have seen why. Alas, it’s not. The article paints out this image of people struggling with an inability to control themselves, an unwillingness to allow themselves space to learn how to control themselves and their struggle to develop and maintain balance (or, if their goal is weight loss, to tip the scales in favor of such.)
Let’s start here.
As I write this, tomorrow is Tuesday, which is a cardio day. I’ll spend five minutes warming up on the VersaClimber, a towering machine that requires you to move your arms and legs simultaneously. Then I’ll do 30 minutes on a stair mill. On Wednesday a personal trainer will work me like a farm animal for an hour, sometimes to the point that I am dizzy — an abuse for which I pay as much as I spend on groceries in a week. Thursday is “body wedge” class, which involves another exercise contraption, this one a large foam wedge from which I will push myself up in various hateful ways for an hour. Friday will bring a 5.5-mile run, the extra half-mile my grueling expiation of any gastronomical indulgences during the week.
I have exercised like this — obsessively, a bit grimly — for years, but recently I began to wonder: Why am I doing this? Except for a two-year period at the end of an unhappy relationship — a period when I self-medicated with lots of Italian desserts — I have never been overweight. One of the most widely accepted, commonly repeated assumptions in our culture is that if you exercise, you will lose weight. But I exercise all the time, and since I ended that relationship and cut most of those desserts, my weight has returned to the same 163 lb. it has been most of my adult life. I still have gut fat that hangs over my belt when I sit. Why isn’t all the exercise wiping it out?
“…the extra half mile my grueling expiation of any gastronomical indulgences during the week.” The idea that one should have to atone for their nutritional sins – and the idea that a half-mile would be enough to accommodate such sins (considering how, on average, a person burns 100 calories per mile and the smaller you are, the less you’ll burn) paints part of the problem out clearly… and the article does a fantastic job of explaining this.
The article talks about a concept known as compensation – which is, to put it bluntly, the idea that the body aims to “make up” for any imbalance in the energy expenditure -> energy consumption cycle. The article speaks on this in a slanted way – that is to say, the article talks about compensation in the sense that when the body senses that you’ve burned a lot of energy (read: calories) in one given activity session, it will try to compel you to eat more calories so that it can keep it’s size. This form of compensation is how the body protects us from getting “too small” – something that is relative to the size you’ve been – because it fears being unable to protect you from famine. This explains that “ravenous feeling” people get after they’ve worked out. This is also why you have to be extremely careful with your intake after you eat.
Church’s team randomly assigned into four groups 464 overweight women who didn’t regularly exercise. Women in three of the groups were asked to work out with a personal trainer for 72 min., 136 min., and 194 min. per week, respectively, for six months. Women in the fourth cluster, the control group, were told to maintain their usual physical-activity routines. All the women were asked not to change their dietary habits and to fill out monthly medical-symptom questionnaires.
The findings were surprising. On average, the women in all the groups, even the control group, lost weight, but the women who exercised — sweating it out with a trainer several days a week for six months — did not lose significantly more weight than the control subjects did. (The control-group women may have lost weight because they were filling out those regular health forms, which may have prompted them to consume fewer doughnuts.) Some of the women in each of the four groups actually gained weight, some more than 10 lb. each.
What’s going on here? Church calls it compensation, but you and I might know it as the lip-licking anticipation of perfectly salted, golden-brown French fries after a hard trip to the gym. Whether because exercise made them hungry or because they wanted to reward themselves (or both), most of the women who exercised ate more than they did before they started the experiment. Or they compensated in another way, by moving around a lot less than usual after they got home.
Well… hey. There’s also this:
It’s true that after six months of working out, most of the exercisers in Church’s study were able to trim their waistlines slightly — by about an inch. Even so, they lost no more overall body fat than the control group did. Why not?
Church, who is 41 and has lived in Baton Rouge for nearly three years, has a theory. “I see this anecdotally amongst, like, my wife’s friends,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Ah, I’m running an hour a day, and I’m not losing any weight.'” He asks them, “What are you doing after you run?” It turns out one group of friends was stopping at Starbucks for muffins afterward. Says Church: “I don’t think most people would appreciate that, wow, you only burned 200 or 300 calories, which you’re going to neutralize with just half that muffin.”
But wait – isn’t muscle a big factor, here? Well…
After all, doesn’t exercise turn fat to muscle, and doesn’t muscle process excess calories more efficiently than fat does?Yes, although the muscle-fat relationship is often misunderstood. According to calculations published in the journal Obesity Research by a Columbia University team in 2001, a pound of muscle burns approximately six calories a day in a resting body, compared with the two calories that a pound of fat burns. Which means that after you work out hard enough to convert, say, 10 lb. of fat to muscle — a major achievement — you would be able to eat only an extra 40 calories per day, about the amount in a teaspoon of butter, before beginning to gain weight.
There’s also this:
All this helps explain why our herculean exercise over the past 30 years — all the personal trainers, StairMasters and VersaClimbers; all the Pilates classes and yoga retreats and fat camps — hasn’t made us thinner. After we exercise, we often crave sugary calories like those in muffins or in “sports” drinks like Gatorade. A standard 20-oz. bottle of Gatorade contains 130 calories. If you’re hot and thirsty after a 20-minute run in summer heat, it’s easy to guzzle that bottle in 20 seconds, in which case the caloric expenditure and the caloric intake are probably a wash. From a weight-loss perspective, you would have been better off sitting on the sofa knitting.
To me, this isn’t an argument against working out. This is an argument against the gatorade. This is the slant that I’m talking about. The idea is that you are the problem, not your choice of indulgence after your workout. That’s what’s so strange to me. I mean, the article talks about eating a giant muffin from Starbucks after a workout.
I mean, there’s a problem there, but I’m not so sure that this article addresses it.
Then again, it does bring up the issue of will power:
Many people assume that weight is mostly a matter of willpower — that we can learn both to exercise and to avoid muffins and Gatorade. A few of us can, but evolution did not build us to do this for very long. In 2000 the journal Psychological Bulletin published a paper by psychologists Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in which they observed that self-control is like a muscle: it weakens each day after you use it. If you force yourself to jog for an hour, your self-regulatory capacity is proportionately enfeebled. Rather than lunching on a salad, you’ll be more likely to opt for pizza.Some of us can will ourselves to overcome our basic psychology, but most of us won’t be very successful. “The most powerful determinant of your dietary intake is your energy expenditure,” says Steven Gortmaker, who heads Harvard’s Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity. “If you’re more physically active, you’re going to get hungry and eat more.” Gortmaker, who has studied childhood obesity, is even suspicious of the playgrounds at fast-food restaurants. “Why would they build those?” he asks. “I know it sounds kind of like conspiracy theory, but you have to think, if a kid plays five minutes and burns 50 calories, he might then go inside and consume 500 calories or even 1,000.”
I don’t know about you, but my muscles don’t weaken after I use them… they strengthen. So, in my mind, yes – my ability to learn self-control is exactly like a muscle – it became stronger with each opportunity I took to say “No.”
As I’ve said before, will power is not this innate ability that we are born with – as evidenced by many of us and our inability to use it. Will-power is not something people should be approaching as if it’s some latent thing we can tap into. That’s just not how it works. If anything, look at it as if it is a skill that you develop. Being able to turn down something you really enjoy? That is a skill. Knowing yourself well enough to know that you can’t turn down this street today, because you’ll see that store? That is a skill. So this is where the article takes a turn, for me.
The article goes on to make a lot of statements about exercise and which levels of activity, exactly, are ideal for weight loss. The idea is that it doesn’t take a lot to trigger success without triggering hunger pangs. Any person who runs for an extended period of time will tell you that.
The general theory is that any activity that extends beyond about 45 minutes is going to create hunger. This is evidenced by the plethora of information for runners that says “any exercise that extends beyond 45-60 minutes should include time to refuel.” That’s also why exercise that extends beyond 45-60 minutes should be reserved for those of us who are training for something exhaustive. A lot of bodybuilders never work out beyond approximately 35 minutes because, as it triggers hunger, it can also trigger muscle atrophy because of a lack of fat to burn
Do I engage in some type of strenuous activity? You bet I do. Do I eat carefully afterwards? You bet I do. I don’t want to be exhausted until the next time I take in food, and I don’t want to be undoing my efforts. That takes a serious level of consciousness that any person interested in weight loss has to keep in mind.
So… to bring this back to my original point, if this article was titled “Why Exercise Alone Won’t Make You Thin,” I’d be grab my pom poms and cheer for it. If the article talked about the fact that will power is a skill – not an innate ability that we all are born with and are simply too lazy to tap into – then I might actually do a cartwheel or two. The reality of weight loss is that food is far more important. What you take in is far more important than what you expend, because if you never take in the excess of calories, you never have to worry about burning them.
Lots of us have already said that at least 85% of weight loss is food. This article – in a roundabout way – proves a big portion of why, even if only by accident.