Part 3 (yes 3!): Clarifying the Myth About Exercise

I can’t promise this won’t be the last, but TIME’s front page coverage—a usually reputable and fair minded news source—of “The Myth About Exercise” still has me thinking.

I have a few more thoughts on this matter after reading some responses to the “Myth” article in TIME’s Letters to the Editor.

In the Aug. 31, 2009 issue, TIME published The President of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), James Pivarnik’s, letter to the editor in which he calls out the uneven and untrue reporting in The Myth About Exercise article. The ACSM also published a position statement motivated by the TIME article, in which experts within the ACSM took “strong exception to assertions that exercise can inhibit weight loss by over-stimulating the appetite.” In the position st

What struck me about Pivarnik’s letter was the irony.

How many people read Pivarnik’s letter compared to the millions who read the “Myth” article? The expert, scientific perspective gets 50 words buried on p.6, while the “Myth” story gets front cover exposure, and multiple page, full color feature coverage. Even if you didn’t read the article, you might of read the headline while standing in line at the grocery store—which might be enough to create misinformed perspectives.The exposure of a TIME cover story cannot be underestimated—a major weekly news magazine tells the public what is newsworthy, valued, important….and true (even when the “truth” is skewed, misinterpreted by a journalist, or just plain NOT true).

Part II: Clarifying the Myth About Exercise

If you didn’t read the TIME magazine cover article which stated that exercise is basically a waste of time and doesn’t help people lose weight, my blog critique of the article, or the very insightful comments of blog readers (particularly Jenny Evans, Performance Coach & Human Catalyst), here is your second chance.

To add to this critique is another piece, Why Time Magazine is Wrong About Working Out, written by David Zinczenko, the editor-in-chief of Men’s Health magazine and the editorial director of Women’s Health magazine.

Sensationalistic journalism about health, weight loss, and exercise abounds, which distorts and misinterprets research and further confuses consumers, which is why I decided to add a Part II.

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.

A Good Built Environment Increases Children’s Physical Activity

baseball in a small townThe American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a policy statement about the role of the built environment on children’s health. The built environment is overall structure of the physical environment of a child’s community (e.g., safe sidewalks, accessible parks, existence of bike paths) including spaces such as buildings and streets that are deliberately constructed as well as outdoor spaces that are altered in some way by human activity.

Emerging research indicates that the built environment limits or promotes opportunities for physical activity, in turn affecting child health—including obesity. A July 2009 report “F is for Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America” released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health indicated that in 30 states the percentage of obese and overweight children is at or above 30 percent. Obesity is a gendered and racialized issue as it is more prevalent in girls than boys, and girls of color have higher rates of overweight and obesity than do their White peers. (Note that the sign indicates “baseball diamond”… a game that girls have historically been excluded from. The sign does not say “ball fields” which could perhaps include softball assuming a softball field exists. To read more about girls and baseball read Jennifer Ring’s 2009 book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball)

In many communities across the US, the built environment unfortunately does not reflect the image depicted here…the existence of a safe community baseball field that youth can easily find, have access to, and may perhaps walk or bike to and from. The American Academy of Pediatrics report published in Pediatrics outlines a number of policies that can help create and increase the existence of health-promoting built environments.

Snacks & Youth Sport: What message does this send youth athletes?

snacksI’ve been thinking about snacks at youth sport events since last summer. Why?—primarily because when I asked youth sport parents what made them “angry” at their child’s sport events, snacks came up with some frequency. We thought, “Snacks? Anger? Really?” At one point we dubbed it “Snack Wars”….too many snacks, not enough snacks, the wrong snacks, who is bringing the snacks?, and who is in charge of organizing the snacks? We were quite surprised (and amused) by this emergent finding. I need your help in thinking through this issue. Why have snacks become such a common and ubiquitous part of youth sports? When did this start and why? What is your opinion about snacks at youth sport events? Leave me a comment and enlighten me. In the meantime, watch this “McDonald’s Victory” commercial on YouTube…this is what I’m talking about! What message does this send youth athletes?