Clarifying “The Myth About Exercise”

TIME Cover_myth about exercise Every Saturday I look forward to the TIME magazine in my mail. I know I can read it all online, but there is something satisfying about print media. As someone trained in sport science (aka, Kinesiology) this week’s cover story by John Cloud “The Myth About Exercise” intrigued me. After reading it, I was more than surprised, a bit irritated, and wondered if this wasn’t just more sensationalistic journalism. The premise of the article was based on “some recent studies” that found exercise does not help one lose weight or isn’t as important as we’ve been led to believe.

What?! Have we been lied to all these years? A friend who regularly works out read the article and promptly said, “THAT was depressing and made me never want to work out again.” I wondered how many others were thinking similar thoughts.

The TIME article, based in part on the findings of ONE clinical trial, found that in a group of 464 overweight women assigned to four conditions—women who exercised did not lose significantly more weight than those who did not exercise…and some women in each of the four conditions gained weight.

Dr. Timothy Church, Chair of Health Wisdom at LSU and lead author of the clinical trial, outlines the process of exactly how exercise might psychologically work against us:
1. exercise stimulates hunger
2. when we exercise we often “reward” ourselves with food [see my blog post about this issue in youth sport]
…or both. My astute friend mentioned previously, pointed out this premise assumes that those who don’t exercise don’t reward themselves with food.

Cloud offers an additional explanation based on another study with UK children he’d written about earlier this year
3. One might be more sedentary during non-exercise times than if one didn’t exercise at all

At first read, these findings and the TIME article may be perceived as a green light to bolster couch potato status, and only pay attention to what you eat–and this is dangerous. Exercise matters…but more importantly researchers have demonstrated movement matters!

Weight management is a simple energy equation: energy in (food) < energy out (exercise + energy expended daily to move about, live, & breathe) = maintain or lose weight.

If you take in more than you expend, you gain weight. Given that our metabolism slows 10% every decade (i.e., meaning you burn 10% less calories/energy), even if you ate exactly the same as you did as a teenager…you’d gain weight. True, exercise is only HALF of the equation, but a still needed half.

With billions of dollars tied up in the health and diet industry and new products and advice generated daily, I’ve joked for years that I’m going to write a one-page best seller—Move More, Eat in Moderation (© 2009 nmlavoi). Alas, I fear this would not be a best-seller nor make me enough money to become a full time blogger….Americans want the easy route, the quick fix, and watching what you eat and factoring movement into one’s daily plan takes a bit of effort.

TAKE HOME: The research cited in the TIME article is mostly one-sided, although it does raise some interesting questions. Many other researchers have found that exercise/movement IS important, can lead to a host of positive outcomes, and can provide a buffer to chronic diseases associated with obesity. This is a perfect example of why a critical perspective can be valuable….so…off the couch!

To promote healthy eating, and active living in a society in which obesity rates continue to grow, attention to both is critical. This well-placed article in a well known weekly magazine may do more fan the flame of weight loss mythology, than help.

p.s. The tired gendered cliché of “woman running for something sweet” on the cover did not escape notice

UPDATE 8/10/2009: To prove my point about sensationalist health journalism, today a University of Minnesota colleague Gary Schwitzer, a longtime health journalist “sounded the alarm this week after analyzing hundreds of medical news reports from the past three years” in an article in The New York Post.

9 Replies to “Clarifying “The Myth About Exercise””

  1. I had a similar reaction when I read that article. Actually, it made me want to scream. Of course if you eat sweets and other unhealthy foods after you exercise you probably won’t lose as much weight, if any. Duh. Exercise + healthy diet works. What are they trying to do? Encourage overweight Americans to just give up? Even if you didn’t lose weight, exercise has so many other good effects, mental and physical.


  2. Interesting commentary by TIME, but not at all reflective of aging adults either. Most adults that are trying to stay active will cringe at “exercise,” yet the simple terms of “movement” or “activity” seem to be well accepted. And what Time neglects to comment on is the balance between simply moving from a sedentary lifestyle to one where the individual gets off the couch more than 3 x a day to get to the bathroom or kitchen. And in our older population, this is sadly a reality for some.


    1. Julia,
      You’re right on, and what I didn’t write is that Cloud failed to mention in the clinical trial study that the women were not only sedentary and overweight, but postmenopausal! He didn’t report the average age of the sample either, which brings in your comments about older individuals who are just trying to maintain mobility. Thanks for posting! -nml


  3. Thanks for the follow-up on this. As a longtime athlete who has pretty much failed to lose those “last 10 pounds” her whole life, even when playing very demanding sports for two hours a day, the Time article certainly caught my eye. I think at the end of the day you are right that the input-output calorie equation is the key thing to remember. But the insights about our eating patterns in relation to our exercise routines seemed to make a lot of sense in the article. We reward ourselves for being good even though we may not internalize just how few calories we burn during an hour at the gym . I would argue that if people were better informed about the contents of the foods they eat, they’d naturally start eat fewer calories and find it less depressing to exercise. I do think exercise is important, but understanding exactly what you are ingesting is even more crucial and empowering if your goal is weight maintenance or loss.


    1. 2otauri,
      Yes it is true most people are ill-informed about what is IN their food, let alone how many calories it has. That is why it is important to educate not only on why movement is important, but eating well too. -nml


  4. I had to go through a cooling off period before I could comment. I’ve got a lot of issues with this but I’ll try and keep it short…
    1. He’s really going for shock value here in order to get attention, and unfortunately it’s going to come at the cost of the many people who will use this as one of their reasons for not exercising.
    2. Is the article really about exercise or about the psychology of the food choices we make? I feel like it’s more about the latter.
    3. Anyone can form a hypothesis and find research studies to back it up. It doesn’t mean the research is sound. For instance, the ONE Clinical trial states the women gained weight – what happened to body fat and lean body mass? Using the scale to measure success is not the end all be all.
    4. All exercise is not created equal. What about the intensity? Frequency? Balance of strength training and cardiovascular workouts? You can spend a lot of TIME in the gym or exercising, but if you’re not doing it appropriately you’re not going to get the results you want.
    5. Nutrition is a critical component to balancing body composition. You can work out all day long every day, but if you’re not eating appropriately you’re not going to accomplish your goals.
    6. Many studies show that long-term exercise does indeed stimulate appetite, but not enough to outweigh the extra calories burned during exercise. (I can provide references if anyone wants them.)
    7. Finally, this article completely negates the other positive benefits of exercise. Is losing weight the ONLY reason for exercising? Hardly! What about improving health, immunity, sleep, mood, resiliency to stress, minimizing risk of disease or improving quality of life?


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