Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Why Reading Time Magazine Won't Make You Well-Informed

The idea that exercise doesn't facilitate weight loss is not new. Remember Bob Greene, Oprah's "trainer" way back when? He discouraged Oprah from performing resistance training as part of her weight loss routine on the theory that people who lift weights tend to eat more and gain weight instead of losing it. Plainly he was right: just look at Oprah's success in losing weight and keeping it off. Um, yeah.

I'm not even going to say mean things about John Cloud and his article, "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin." I'm just going to quote from it.

As I write this, tomorrow is Tuesday, which is a cardio day. I'll spend five minutes warming up on the VersaClimber, a towering machine that requires you to move your arms and legs simultaneously. Then I'll do 30 minutes on a stair mill. On Wednesday a personal trainer will work me like a farm animal for an hour, sometimes to the point that I am dizzy — an abuse for which I pay as much as I spend on groceries in a week. Thursday is "body wedge" class, which involves another exercise contraption, this one a large foam wedge from which I will push myself up in various hateful ways for an hour. Friday will bring a 5.5-mile run, the extra half-mile my grueling expiation of any gastronomical indulgences during the week.

I have exercised like this — obsessively, a bit grimly — for years, but recently I began to wonder: Why am I doing this? .... One of the most widely accepted, commonly repeated assumptions in our culture is that if you exercise, you will lose weight. But I exercise all the time, and ... I still have gut fat that hangs over my belt when I sit. Why isn't all the exercise wiping it out?

Right. If you read this blog regularly, you know that for fat loss resistance training is critical. Assuming that what Mr. Cloud does with his trainer on Wednesdays constitutes some form of resistance training, and assuming the same thing about his "body wedge class" on Thursdays, he evidently performs strength training twice a week. That's not terrible in itself, but Mr. Cloud is screwing up bigtime by doing his resistance training on consecutive days instead of putting a day in between so that his muscles have a chance to recover and get stronger. No wonder he's not seeing changes. If I were Mr Cloud's trainer I'd tell him to drop the Thursday class, do his run on that day instead, and give him a total body strength workout to perform on his own on Fridays if he didn't want to spring for a second weekly PT session.

I'd also point out to him that adding an extra half mile to his weekly run isn't going to expiate much in the way of gastronomical indulgence.

And, finally, I would ask him how long he's been on the same schedule, doing that same 30 minutes on the stairmill and that same 5.5 mile run. I would ask him when he last increased the resistance on the stairmill, or increased the speed and incline settings on the treadmill. Even a great fat loss routine, which Mr. Cloud's is not, is going to stop working after a while.

The problem is not that exercise won't make you thin. The problem is that the way Mr. Cloud exercises won't make him thin, particularly since by his own admission he's in the habit of rewarding himself with a blueberry bar after exercise. Not a great choice of post workout snack unless the blueberry bar happens to be low in fat, and have about a 4:1 ratio of good carbs to protein ... and somehow I don't think that's the kind of bar he's talking about. If it's the kind you buy at Starbucks it probably has at least as many calories as were burned during the workout, Not only that, but they're pretty much all empty calories with none of the nutrients needed for post workout recovery.

To support his argument that exercise is useless or even counterproductive for weight loss Mr. Cloud cites a study showing that women who exercised but did not diet lost no more weight over time than women who did not exercise. The reason the exercisers in the study did not lose more weight is that they were "compensators" who increased their calorie intake on days they exercised, either because they felt hungrier or believed they were entitled to a reward for their efforts.

Fine. But here's the thing: it's perfectly possible to exercise without eating more. Really, it is. People do it all the time. It may not always be easy, but if we're sufficiently motivated to lose weight we can manage to tolerate the mild hunger pangs we may sometimes feel when we're in a calorie deficit. If the goal of losing his gut fat were important to Mr. Cloud I have no doubt but that he could manage to suck it up and do his cardio without having a blueberry bar afterward.

If I can do it, so can he.