TIME MAGAZINE article claims “Exercise Won’t Make You Thin”, Are They Right?

No, of course they aren’t right.  Anyone, including myself, can attest to the power of exercise in the battle against excess weight.  However, the article includes many true facts that if the reader (or writer, apparently) doesn’t know any better, would convince you that exercise is pointless in helping one shed pounds.  Here is a link to the article, Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.  Read it (or skim it. It’s long.) Then read my responses.

MY RESPONSES

CLAIM #1: The writer claims that he, himself, has been exercising regularly and intensely for years, but still has belly gut and can’t lose weight. However, he is not overweight. Why can’t he lose the belly fat/anymore weight?

Response:

There are a few different factors that could be affecting his body’s resistance to weight loss.

1.  He Isn’t Overweight!:  Although it feels funny to state the obvious, he isn’t overweight.  He only weighs 163 lbs.  Unless he is the same height as Tom Cruise, this isn’t exactly overweight for a man.  So why would exercising regularly make him underweight? 

2.  Set Point Theory:  Maybe you have heard this term before on an infomercial, but it isn’t a gimmick.  It is a widely accepted theory.  Your body, genetically, has determined what weight it is meant to maintain.  For example, your genes may determine that you are meant to weigh between 150 and 160 pounds and your body will continuously fight to keep you in that range.  However, with unrealistic expectations that many people have, they may be unwilling to accept that their “set point” is higher than where they would like it to be.  Therefore, when they exercise to try to lose weight and don’t, it may be because they are already in their set point range, and they body is fighting change.  On that note, set points are typically not out of a healthy range, so if someone is 200 pounds overweight, they are not at their set point.

3.  Fat Distribution is genetically determined:  Another fact that doesn’t please people is that you can’t control where you store fat.  That means your body, again, genetically, has decided where it is going to distribute fat tissue.  Your genes may be programmed to give you a little extra in the gut area, thighs, hips, etc…  You can exercise in order to reduce body fat, but you can’t shift where it’s stored.

4.  The Difference between Physical Activity and Exercise:  While you may think these terms mean the same thing, they are in fact different.  Physical Activity refers to simply being active.  For example, if you walk 3 miles everyday, you are physically active, but you aren’t exercising (yes, really!).  Exercise refers to “challenging the body’s physiological systems forcing them to work harder than they are accustomed to working.” [1]  The difference, here, is that if you do the same exercises all of the time, you are not challenging the body, and thus not creating any additional reason for the body to lose weight.  You must constantly challenge the body to see weight loss results.

CLAIM #2: Exercise makes you eat more, thus you don’t create a calorie deficit and don’t lose weight.

Response: 

This can be true, depending on your eating habits.  It is true that exercise will cause an increase in appetite and, as the writer puts it, if you exercise and then go out and eat a bowl of french fries you negate what you just did.  That is very true and IS a main reason why those who exercise to lose weight, don’t lose any!  You must be conscious of what you are eating in combination with exercise, if your goal is to lose weight.  But that doesn’t mean exercise isn’t working, it simply means you negated your calorie deficit by eating too many french fries.

Claim #3:  The writer also claims that “science” has shown that it is calorie deficit from food, and not exercise, that typically causes weight loss. 

Response:

I am not sure what kind of studies he is looking at, but anyone who has taken an introduction to nutrition class knows that dieting along causes a reduction in metabolism and is usually not advised for weight loss without incorporating exercise, which will speed up the metabolism.

Claim #4:  Despite the emphasis on exercise, obesity is still rising, so exercise isn’t working. 

Response:

I’ve worked in fitness centers, schools, and training studios in addition to being a runner and I don’t see people gaining weight at the gym after years of exercise.  The people who are getting bigger are the people who don’t exercise and don’t watch what they eat.  Ask yourself a question; how many people do you know that exercise on a regular basis (most days of the week) and incorporate it into their lifestyle?  Now compare that number to the amount of people you know.  Is the percentage of exercisers a low number compared to all of the people you know?  I would bet money that it is.  In reality, most people don’t exercise.  So the obesity levels that continue to go up are among the rest of the population, which is a pretty high percentage of people.

Claim #5:  “Fundamentally, humans are not a species that evolved to dispose of many extra calories beyond what we need to live.”

Response: 

This statement is true, and is a major reason why so many people who yo-yo diet continue to gain weight over time.  The body has amazing survival mechanisms and if you lose too much weight it triggers the body to conserve more energy rather than burning it off.  So if you try to lose more than you need to, you may in fact slow your metabolism and cause weight gain.  But regular exercise will not cause you to trigger survival mode, unless you are exercising obsessively or not eating nearly enough to compensate for the exercise.

Claim #6:  “…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. Good luck with that”

Response:

There are a few holes in this claim.  First, and foremost, fat tissue does not turn into muscle tissue!  I can’t stress that fact enough.  It is a common misconception and I am shocked that the writer is quoting an obesity research clinic as saying it.  I hope it was just a misunderstanding on the part of the writer, because if a scientist stated it, boy do we have a problem.  Fat tissue and muscle tissue are two completely different types of tissue in the body and one doesn’t turn into another.  Exercise can cause the body to burn fat tissue (in the form of stored energy) and can also cause the body to build muscle tissue.

Secondly, the numbers are off.  Muscle tissue burns about five times more calories than fat tissue, not three times, as the writer claims.  Regardless, if your plan is to eat enough extra food (butter in his example) to compensate for the extra muscle tissue, than you are not creating a calorie deficit, so of course, no weight loss would take place.  However, the more muscle mass you have, the more likely you are to lose weight because you will be burning a lot more calories (unless, of course, you eat a lot more, as I mentioned.)

Claim #7:  The body is designed to be active all day, in low intensity mode, rather than one burst of high intensity activity.

Response: 

Again, this is true, to an extent.  We are much more designed to work throughout our day than to sit all day long and hit the gym for an hour.  That is very true.  However, it is 2009 and we live in a different world than our ancestors.  One that requires sitting at computers; we wont change that.  So it is better to exercise for that extra hour, than not at all.

In addition, although we should be active as much as possible all day long, high-intensity activity will typically cause weight loss because, going back to physical activity vs. exercise, it will challenge the body above it’s normal physiological adaptations.  There is numerous research to support the fact that challenging the body in this matter will increase metabolism and cause weight loss.

I decided to do a database search using Science Direct in order to cite a few studies that show the positive effects of high-intensity exercise on metabolism.  I came up with 952 studies.  Although I didn’t read each one, obviously, skimming through titles and abstracts, so far they all show that high-intensity exercise is beneficial for metabolism.  If you would like a few articles cited, let me know.  Would be glad to send you a few citations.

Overall, it appears this article was written more for SEO return and less to address realistic situations.  While there are many half-truths in this article, the basic theme I got from reading it was that if you exercise and eat too much you won’t lose weight.  On that premise, the author is correct.

[1]  “Get Fit, Stay Fit”, W. Prentice, Fifth Edition. Mc-Graw-Hill 2009.

NOTE: ***I wrote this blog almost two years ago based on an article I read on YAHOO, which actually referenced the infamous TIME magazine artcle, “Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.”  I had to update the link and after re-reading the blog I decided it was worth re-posting.  Although the TIME magazine article is now a year and a half past, I noticed this article is still listed as one of the top 10 articles on the front page of Timemagazine.com , so here is a re-post.  ***

About Kimberly Dawson, M.S.

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