I read an article this morning which was published in Time magazine last month. It created a small buzz when it first appeared but I don’t think it received the amount of attention and publicity it should have considering its importance…if only people would listen to what it has to say. It basically verified some strange things I’ve seen over the years with some overweight people I’ve been known.
The article, entitled Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin, takes on the popular and widely-accepted notion that exercise is a necessary ingredient to any weight-loss plan. It shatters the myth we’ve all bought into: namely, that if you exercise your ass off you will become skinny. I sorta bought into it also but with a large dose of skepticism. It seemed too convenient and there is nothing simple about weight maintenance.
I’ve known 2 people who were extreme examples of the failure of exercise as a weight loss tool…2 people who led such “active” lifestyles yet managed to maintain soft, mushy physiques.
#1) “K”, from high school and college years: The dude ran off to aerobics classes daily, it seemed. There was not a gym class he wouldn’t try. Yet…he was a large guy. He was not obese, but he was just a big, Fred Flinstoney kinda guy. I would have expected him to be cut as hell with 15% body fat. But no, to the contrary. He had no muscle definition. He was fleshy and lumbering and I would put him at 23-25% body fat. Summary: not “obese” in the typical sense, but you would expect more from such a gym rat as he.
#2) “J” from recent years. This chick was obsessed with fitness. She participated in marathons and -athlons of various types and sizes. She was fond of sending “action” photos of herself running in marathons. (What the hell is up with that man…who wants to see a picture of you frozen in time looking like you’re ready to keel over and smelling foul, most likely. What am I supposed to do, be impressed or aroused by that?). Anyways, J ran and swam and was also a gym rat. Once again, you’d expect her to be shredded and maybe hovering around a 20% body fat level (excellent for a woman). Nope, she had thunder thighs and was always battling the bulge. Summary: once again, not obese, but you’d expect that level of activity to leave her with something lower than a body fat level of 29ish.
So anyways, my real-life anecdotal experience always told me that exercise did not correlate with lean bodies. Beside J & K, I’ve known others who went down that route also. Worked their asses off just to be…chunky. Something wasn’t registering.
John Cloud, the author of the Time article, must have experienced the same disbelief because his article takes on our commonly-held beliefs about exercise and puts them in their place. He brings up several very interesting points about why exercise seems to fail as a weight reducer.
The primary reason and the one I found most interesting has to do with our capacity for self-control. Cloud pointed out a study which showed that self-control is like a muscle…that it will weaken shortly after you use it. And a lot of the researchers quoted in the article believe our capacity for self-control weakens after physical exertion. We exercise and consequently we become hungry. Since exercise is viewed as such an uncomfortable and evil necessity which we must bear to “look good,” psychologically we feel the need to reward ourselves afterwards. And we eat shit.
The article also points out that from an evolutionary standpoint, humans are ill-equipped to burn off excess calories. In other words, once we eat beyond maintenance, our bodies quickly store the extra as fat rather than work to burn it off, thanks to our lack of “brown fat,” a specific type of tissue which dispenses with fat more efficiently than “white fat.”
This adds up to one simple fact that dooms us to failure when it comes to weight loss: exercise cannot ever keep up with our food intake. Even when we think our food intake is small, it really is not. Our eating habits and food self-awareness are seriously flawed. Our palates have become so seriously desensitized to the scourge of bad food that we have lost the ability to judge our own hunger levels when it comes to survival and body maintenance. Cloud talks about how some of his wife’s friends complained about how they run for an hour and still aren’t losing weight. Turns out they are stopping at Starbucks for muffins afterwards. Even a full hour of running burns 300 calories, at the most and a brisk walk much less. Yet they are rewarding themselves with a muffin. That’s ridiculous. Even a “diet” muffin at Starbucks is still about 400 calories. Much of this is about awareness. And defeating self-denial. You can’t eat everything in sight just because you worked out last night.
It always comes down to the food. Eating less of it.
Unfortunately it is much easier for most people to go to the gym and jump around frantically and turn their work out into some kind of social dance activity than actually alter their bad eating habits. So they use exercise as a means to gloss over an unhealthy diet.