Last month, Time magazine ran a cover article entitled, “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” by John Cloud which started a hurricane within the fitness industry.
As a Certified Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine, the leading research entity in fitness, I received an email requesting that I send a letter of response to the magazine. In fact, every individual certified through this college received the same email and with or without the prompt, fitness practitioners around the country have been moved to discredit the article. Why? Because it simply is not true!
The article basically states that when people exercise they become hungrier and then end up eating back what they burned. People who exercise are less active from everyday activities due to feelings of fatigue resulting from rigorous exercise, so they end up burning the same amount of calories at the end of the day as people who don’t exercise and have more energy to go up and down stairs, mow the lawn, etc.
The main study Cloud refers to as evidence for this outrageous and untrue claim, involved four groups of women exercisers: one group exercised for 72 minutes; one for 136 minutes; and another group for 194 minutes per week. The last group was the control group and did their normal daily activities. The women were then asked to fill out monthly medical-symptom questionnaires.
At the end of the study all the groups lost weight (even the control group). But, those who exercised the most didn’t experience more weight loss and in all groups some women actually gained weight.
Cloud concluded that exercise is not a significant factor in losing weight, but he totally misunderstood the research study. The lead researcher, Dr. Timothy Church, has since been quoted as saying that on average, the women in the study, no matter what group they were in, actually ate less calories then they normally do, which is why all groups lost weight. But, just because some women lost equal weight to others that exercised more, doesn’t mean that exercise doesn’t help you to lose weight. What it means is that when you cut back on calories you will lose weight whether you exercise or not. But we all know that!
A major problem with this type of study is that the women self-reported how much they ate and how much they exercised, and in the research world, this type of self-reporting is historically inaccurate (because it is not an objective direct measurement). So, this study is just accurate in evaluating the role of exercise in weight loss.
In my opinion, this article is an effort at seducing the general public to believe that exercise is ineffective in the battle against obesity and weight loss in general. Why? Maybe because the author has been unable to lose his belly fat (directly quoted in the article) and knows a lot of people who have a similar struggle. But what he doesn’t state is that even though they probably exercise regularly, they are unsuccessful at calorie control when eating.
In a world where obesity and its complications are causing premature death and dramatic reduction of quality of life, any article that further reduces motivation to exercise is bordering on criminal. Especially when exercise has been linked in thousands of other studies as a key component in weight management and weight loss.
The second half of the article actually has some legitimacy and potential redemption.
Cloud discusses the “energy gap” which is necessary for weight loss. Basically, this is the concept that you must burn more than you eat in a day in order to access the energy stored in fat cells. The difference in amount burned through metabolism and exercise and the amount eaten is called the “energy gap”. It has to be negative (more burned, less eaten) in order to lose weight. In the case of weight gain, less burned, more eaten creates an energy abundance that gets converted by the body into storage for future use. This storage unit is called FAT!
The author references a variety of researchers who have been published or who work on research projects related to understanding the obesity-exercise-food equation. In these references, the point being made is that yes, it is true that exercise makes people healthier, but when it comes to weight loss, the food component of the equation has more effect than the exercise. The reason for this is that most people can burn between 200-900 calories per hour when doing formal cardiovascular exercise. And most people can eat this amount of calories in less than 15 minutes!
So the take home message of the article is this: we can do more damage with our mouths than we can correct with exercise, therefore we have to be more disciplined with food intake while striving to maintain a high activity level in our everyday lives though a combination of daily activity and rigorous exercise.
Instead of entitling the article, “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin”, the title should have been, “Exercise Combined With Calorie Restriction Will Make You Thin” with a follow up article entitled, “Exercise Will Keep You Thin So Be As Active As Possible!”
Judy Torel is a USAT coach, personal trainer, nutrition consultant and psychotherapist. Her office is located in Planet Fitness, Loudonville. She can be reached at 469.0815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.