Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Exercise Won’t Make You Thin?

Q&A Wednesday: Exercise Won’t Make You Thin?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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.

Ugh.

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.

What?

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.

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13 comments

Eva May 4, 2011 - 11:14 AM

I don’t know about this article. To me it’s empowering if the problem is me, because I can do something about me, but I can’t do something about Starbucks. In 12 step programs, the idea is that we can’t change what’s going on outside and the only thing we can change are our reactions to what’s going on.

Erika Nicole Kendall October 5, 2011 - 8:44 AM

But Eva, you CAN do something about Starbucks – you can choose to NOT buy it. 🙂

You’re failing to see your ability to make a conscious decision as something you can do about it. Don’t do that to yourself!

Robyn May 4, 2011 - 12:43 PM

The article didn’t mention different types of exercises. He talks mostly about running and doing 30 minutes on the stair mill as oppose to doing strength/weight training or even interval training (which is short periods of intense conditioning cardio exercises followed by periods of rest and recovery [as opposed to sustained cardio]). The article also doesn’t mention that too much sustained cardio increased cortisol stress hormone which doesn’t burn fat, but instead it burns muscle (ie difference between a marathon runner [sustained exercise] and a sprinter [interval exercise], who has more muscle?)

What are your thoughts on this?

Kait May 4, 2011 - 12:50 PM

Before even reading your comments I wen to the article…I wanted to form my own nascent opinion before reading your thoughts.

And about halfway through, I got angry (as my office mate can attest)! I totally understand and appreciate what they are trying to say (that no, most people can’t eat what they want and just exercise it off) but at the same time, I just don’t feel they went about it in the proper way. I’m glad you talked about the slant because I couldn’t put my finger on what precisely was bothering me!

I almost feel like the article is saying, “Yea well exercise is OK and all but…” and discounting the other benefits (stress relief, the feeling of exuberance at making it through a Power Yoga class, etc) that also may impact the food you choose to eat afterwards. I also wish they would include information about WHY you crave the things you do post exercise and the role processed foods has played in screwing those cravings up. You wrote about numbing our taste buds and I think that is super important here. You’ve just burned calories and used nutrients and sweated out electrolytes so YES you need to eat something. But numbed taste buds mean something wholesome with a little bit of sodium or carbs won’t hit the spot.

Sorry this is a little jumbled…I’m in desperate need of another black coffee!

Malpha May 4, 2011 - 5:11 PM

Wait, so do you think over an hour a day is excessive? Do you think it hinders weight loss? I wanted to get in some cardio every day, weights 5x a week, but it’s was exhausting and there wasn’t anything happening on the scale anymore even with the increased exercise, so it was even more exhaustive.

Muscles do get stronger the more you use them, but don’t most sources tell you not to work the same muscle every day?! I’m joking, but I do get what the author was saying a bit. Constantly denying yourself and pushing yourself is draining. After a while, you just get tired of feeling guilty because you want to “indulge” for the first time in a month, especially if you’re around people who don’t do jack and are still thin. I mean, it feels good to deny yourself when you see that it’s working because you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but when it stops working…not so much, it’s like you’re punishing yourself and it’s still not good enough.

I think with exercise, it’s something that can be fun even, so you don’t mind doing it so much. You sweat along with a group of people trying to get results. But with eating and specifically, calorie counting, it gets tedious. It gets tedious in the grocery store, it gets tedious trying to get a 30/30/30 balance, it gets tedious making sure you eat the right things five-six times a day , it’s something that’s really time consuming and sometimes budget constraining (my family wants to go with more fruits and veggies, but fruits are incredibly expensive when you’re trying to buy enough for 4-5 ppl). So it can be really hard to do both.

Erika Nicole Kendall May 4, 2011 - 5:31 PM

If you’re not training for something specific? To me, over an hour a day is MAD excessive and [usually] unsustainable. The first time I started working out for longer than an hour at a time was when I started training for an event. Do I think it HINDERS weight loss? Not quite, but I DO think it’s not as effective as many of us may think. My deeper worry is that people who develop eating habits based on going super-hard in the cardio paint will eventually stop going hard in the cardio paint… and gain the weight back, all confused. Taking it a step further, people who use excessive cardio as an excuse to eat junk food, simply because they don’t “look like they eat junk food.”

I see what you’re saying in re: will power, but again, all that doesn’t explain why EXERCISE FAILS to make a person thin. His whole case wasn’t against exercise – it was against the limitations of the human… and many of those issues could be rectified (easily?), you know? I can’t comment on feeling “drained” by saying no, because I don’t have that feeling. I don’t make that connection with my food choices.

I also can’t disagree with the fact that it IS tedious in the beginning. However, you learn that you hold such tight reins on the horse because you don’t know how much you can let go of the rope and still maintain control. You learn that you don’t have to have a 30/30/30 balance every meal. You learn that you don’t have to eat five/six times a day once you’ve learned how to handle hunger pangs without overeating. You learn how to create a system in the beginning, and as you gather a more conscious understanding of how this fits into your day to day life, you learn how to freak your own system and allow for grace. None of that – none of it – comes easy, and I’d never say otherwise, no matter how lighthearted I can be. But the reality is that none of this is the failings of exercise, and the author failed to represent that properly, in my mind.

Heather E May 4, 2011 - 9:30 PM

I LOVED that article! I had never read it before, so thank you for bringing it to my attention!. I was just working on a blog post the other day about giving up the war on fat and ditching exercise to lose weight!

All of this is really coming together for me, and if you are on a journey to change your lifestyle (like we are if we choose to switch to clean eating) then the information in this article, in my opinion, is a great supplement. It turns “common knowledge” on its head just like that video about sugar a couple weeks ago. It is not fat that makes you fat, just like it is not exercise that makes you thin!

I understand the complaints I have seen here in the comments. This article is not an exhaustive scholarly article. It’s introducing an idea. I have been on the road to eliminating “exercise” for some time now. You know why? Because I hate it. I will do anything to put it off. I have tried a hundred different exercise regimens and failed at them all. Even stuff I like to do, I hate to do when I think of it as exercise (like riding my bike).

I read this article and a few others while researching treadmill desks:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=can-sitting-too-much-kill-you-2011-01-06

It discusses the dangers of sitting all day. I was shocked to learn that working out 5 days a week does not negate the effects of sitting all day at work. How many people think they are healthy if they hit the gym before the office every day?!

I think this is the main point of that article… exercise is not the answer from on high. It is all about leading an active lifestyle. That does not mean busting your butt for an hour and then sitting at the computer the rest of the day! We have been lied to YET again! We have been told Artificial sweeteners are safe, sugar is bad, fat is bad, cholesterol is bad, hfcs is bad, sugar is good, hfcs is safe, some cholesterol is good, exercise is good. But like everything else, it is just more complicated than that! Just like you can be thin and unhealthy, you can exercise and not get thin.

When I gave up exercise, I also gave up sitting at the computer all day. I decided to do yardwork or gardening every day. I decided to deep clean something every day (organizing your crawl space uses some strange muscles!). I have been going outside and PLAYING with my kids. I have been standing to do my crafts and woodworking. Not to mention all the puttering about the kitchen for food prep!!

So, I am actually sad to see that this article made some people upset, because I found it liberating. My sister has been giving me no end of flak for giving up exercise, but I feel better than ever. I have been getting up early because I can’t wait to tackle that next project. If you LIKE exercise… then do IT. Nowhere did the author say that we should give it up because it is worthless. He said it is just not getting the results that have been promised.

We are reading this blog to change our lives. This information goes hand in hand with that for me. Okay I am going to stop typing now (sorry, I do ramble) and get back out to the garage and NOT exercise!

Linda May 6, 2011 - 7:07 AM

“…will power is a skill” could be tattooed on all of our foreheads.

MoreAndAgain May 6, 2011 - 2:22 PM

Great post! I got annoyed reading that article on Time’s site for the simple fact that John Cloud kept trying to make it seem like exercise makes you crave crappy food. I’ve gotten hungry after exercising, but that craving was never “I need to have a pumpkin loaf and caramel frappaccino from Starbuck’s”. Actually, that craving is never even for something specific at all. I just feel hungry. I have known people who “reward” themselves with food after working out, instead of just eating so they wouldn’t be hungry. My friend’s sister would get a smoothie.lol

The Time article also doesn’t touch on the fact that your diet could make you feel worse after working out. When I was in college (and eating like a typical college student) I’d work out and get so hungry I’d almost pass out. So, I’d run to the closest spot on campus that could make me the biggest sandwich, and then scarf it down (of course, doing this, I lost NO weight). I had no idea it was because I wasn’t eating properly before (and after) working out.

PurpleFro July 15, 2011 - 7:15 PM

i can attest..excercise doesnt make you smaller. I was alarmed at the begining of the year to see i put on 15 pounds..then i thought well..let me just work out like a crazy woman and the weight would come off…wrong..if anything i ate more and worked out less. then my waistline started blowing up. I was like…what the heck…i hired a personal trainer…who just has me on weights..so couple increasing muscle with eating way too many carbs (bad ones at thats)..think that it was going to solve the weight alone. Till i finally fessed up to myself one day: i had to change the way i was eating. Id workout and demolish two big cookies afterward..thinking my metabolism was going to burn it off. Big NO! it just went straight to my tummy.

Since then, i downloaded a calorie/nutrition tracket for my iPad and now im counting calroies and focusing on..fresh lean meats, fruits, whole grains (in moderation)..i too ka break from working out..cause my body get’s used to stuff quick and I plateau very easily..i eliminated process foods from my daily intake for two weeks just to shake things up a bit..then i went back to cardio for one hour..several times a week..now..my mid section is getting smaller..not because of the cardio..its because im not jamming white breads, processed carbs, and junk into my belly. Its because im putting the “clean” food in. Did i mention my “increased” natural fiber intake. O_O

In then out..is what I always say..i never had skin issues..but my face looks even more brighter..my eye lashes and eye brows are out of control..and my car wash afro is making a come back (i didnt know bad nutrition can make your hair break off as well)

sorry for being long..but excersise doesnt cut it only…its what we put in..before and after

Holly February 21, 2013 - 12:50 PM

This article was recommended to me when I told my doctor that I have joined a gym. She wanted me to focus more on diet instead of my exercise. What she did not understand was that I already on a serious journey to working on my weight loss and had been having good success. During that process I was learning things about me that foster success. I realized that I needed to have a place that I go that is not my house if I am to be regular with my exercise. I had this epiphany after moving from an apartment with a gym to a townhouse without one. While in the apartment I was starting to lose weight that I put on through life and recent pregnancy. I was able to shed 35 lbs in 2.5 months through exercise and diet but after I moved I tried to continue to keep up the same intensity as I had at the apartment but I was not consistent. I gained half of that weight back. My solution I joined a gym and scheduled a set time for my exercise and the result has been I have lost half of the weight i gained back. Everyday is still a struggle for me but I find my own success by realizing that my small failures help me to gain further knowledge about me. I have eliminated milk (My body does not like it even though my taste buds and mind do), I have greatly decreased my sugar intake and working to eliminate it, and have started to cook all of my own foods, and drink mostly water. While i do stumble with some of these changes in my life when I stumble just like the issues surrounding routine work outs I figure out what are my road blocks and change them. This article I found added to my knowledge about weight loss but it did not persuade me to give up exercise. In fact it encourage the opposite. It showed me that i have to make every thing a routine not just a quick fix. If it was not something I could permanently change then I needed to find a different way to do it that could be permanent. I also googled how to change a bad habit and followed that advice. I cannot find the website i used before but in the morning I have the same scripted discussion with myself when i don’t want to work out and am working on ones for other things i want to change. It works to already have the answers to the excuses that you usually give yourself. I use my mantra I am not a trash can so I do not have to finish my children’s food and my friend just gave me another one I am not a dog so I do not need to be rewarded with food. I work at my goal daily and learn something new everyday. Weight loss is not easy because if it was everyone will do it but I am determined to be a success story and not someone who just tried.

Kristen August 28, 2013 - 9:58 PM

Interesting read. I exercise for weight loss, but also as it’s social, takes away the day’s stress, and generally puts me in a good mood so I make better food choices when I’m done.

Wish the article mentioned that a bit more–but it does seem to come down to moving more and eating less–of the processed sugary foods that are cheap and easy to eat.

Jessie March 6, 2018 - 1:10 AM

I love this blog! I used to be hot and I dated a narcissist for a few months that left me with some type of permanent depression, even after I got completely over him as an individual, the brain chemistry he left me with (not being good enough) has taken its toll on me mentally and physically over the past year and a half! My belly is wrinkly now, it almost looks like I had a baby!
I started going to the gym last week thanks to YouTube fitness bloggers telling me I can! Haha, as dumb as it sounds. I used to eat soo healthy, and after my sadness, I’ve been hooked on meats and pizza and completely disregarded vegetables. Thank you for reminding me how important food is!! Coincidentally, I decided to buy a bunnnch of veggies earlier today before I read any of this! But hearing someone else say it is soo important!! Thank you!

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