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Bad News: Exercise Won't Help You Lose Weight

exercise, weight loss

The burrito is not your enemy, exercise is. (Sort of.)

Or so says John Cloud of TIME  magazine.  This after hearing that women with children tend to be fatter than their childless peers makes things seem pretty grim for those of us who could stand to lose a few.  Cloud writes, “I exercise all the time, and since I… cut most 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?”

Here’s why, according to exercise researcher Eric Ravussin of Louisiana State University: “In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless.”  Great.

Sure, “people who regularly exercise are at significantly lower risk for all manner of diseases — those of the heart in particular” and “they less often develop cancer, diabetes and many other illnesses.”  But according to experts, “the role of exercise in weight loss has been wildly overstated.”  That’s because, Cloud writes, “The basic problem is that while it’s true that exercise burns calories and that you must burn calories to lose weight, exercise has another effect: it can stimulate hunger.”

Alright, so the question is, does exercise really not help humans lose weight, or is it that humans – and Americans in particular – don’t have enough discipline to stay disciplined even while we’re disciplining ourselves?

Before you get your hot pants in a bunch, Jillian Michaels, there is some actual science behind the assertion that exercise doesn’t help people lose weight.  In one study, 464 women were split into four groups.  Three of the groups were asked to exercise at varying levels and the fourth group was asked not to change a thing about their eating or workout habits.  At the end of the experiment, some of the women who did not change a thing lost weight and some of the women who had been working out actually gained weight.  Why?  Compensation.  Cloud says, “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.”

Here’s the kicker, though: all 464 women in the study had not been working out before they began the study.  Which tells me not that exercise won’t help people lose weight (or stay trim), but that exercise won’t help a fat-addict change his or her bad eating habits.  That’s an important distinction, obviously.  Telling an obese person who has been eating fast food daily for 10 years to simply walk it off is like telling an alcoholic to get sober by drinking coffee.  Sure, the coffee might make them feel sober for a few hours, but even the best java in the world won’t curb a craving for french fries – I mean, vodka.  Same thing.  (Damn you, potatoes!  Why do you have to be so delicious?!)

Cloud says these findings are important because:

…the government and various medical organizations routinely prescribe more and more exercise for those who want to lose weight.  In 2007 the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association issued new guidelines stating that “to lose weight … 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity may be necessary.”  That’s 60 to 90 minutes on most days of the week, a level that not only is unrealistic for those of us trying to keep or find a job but also could easily produce… ravenous compensatory eating.

I totally get the idea of “compensatory eating.”  Since I just moved, I’ve got random items all over my new apartment, and I happened upon an old photo album last night.  It’s full of pictures from when I was in my early 20′s, looking fit as a fiddle.  (Though, not surprisingly, because I was so young and held myself to a much harsher standard of beauty than I do now, at the time I totally thought I was fat.)  Back then, I used to be able to eat anything I wanted, and I told myself I could “make up for it” by exercising.  And, in a way, I could.  That’s probably because instead of practicing “compensatory eating,” I practiced compensatory workouts.  In other words, I’d eat a plate of nachos then spend an extra 20 minutes on the elliptical, or do my normal workout PLUS take a hip-hop class.  Now it’s the other way around: I spend 20 minutes on the stationary bike – total – and I reward myself with a plate of nachos.  No wonder those pictures made me nostalgic.

Cloud notes that “humans are not a species that evolved to dispose of many extra calories beyond what we need to live” and that “self-control is like a muscle.”  He adds, “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.”  Okay, I hear that.  But I will say, after I really get going in a rhythm of working out and eating well, my body does start to naturally crave carrots over chips.  Steven Gortmaker, the head of Harvard’s Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity, says of this “enfeebling” dynamic, “I know it sounds kind of like conspiracy theory, but you have to think, if a kid plays five minutes” on the playground at a fast food restaurant like McDonald’s “and burns 50 calories, he might then go inside and consume 500 calories or even 1,000.”

Hear that?  No playground until you’ve finished your greasy, fatty burger, kids!

According to researchers, it’s not that we need to exercise more, but that we simply need to move more overall during our waking hours.  In other words, walking at various points throughout the day will probably keep us just as – or more – fit than going to the gym and doing cardio for 30 minutes but remaining sedentary the rest of the time.  Cloud puts it this way: “If I exercised less, I might feel like walking more instead of hopping into a cab; I might have enough energy to shop for food, cook and then clean instead of ordering a satisfyingly greasy burrito.”

Oooooh…. burrito.  Maybe I should walk to the corner and get one…….

Photo via Flickr

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