The August 9 issue of TIME Magazine featured a prominent article that made my hackles rise. Titled “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin,” it was a four page expose on the “myth” that exercise and weight loss are inextricably tied. Au contraire, the article claims: actually, tough regular workouts are more likely to make you GAIN weight, not lose it, because vigorous exercisers are more likely to overcompensate for calorie burn by eating high-fat foods, and more likely to be tired and more sedentary throughout the rest of the day. Backed up by numerous studies and anecdotal evidence, the story actually made a pretty good case for its theory. And surprisingly, I agree with its overall premise: that workouts work up an appetite, and if we allow that appetite to control us, or use the calories we burned through exercise as justification for making poor food choices, weight gain becomes a very high probability. Just take a look at your average group of runners training for a marathon: great legs, amazing cardiovascular fitness – and big old guts hanging over their running shorts. Plenty of exercise and calorie burn, and plenty of beer drinking and cheese fries to make up for it. They’re fit all right, but they’re far from achieving an ideal, healthy body.
But. (You knew there was a “but”, right?)
My real issue with the article is that it takes personal accountability out of the equation. You KNOW that you cannot maintain a healthy, highly functional and energized body when you are eating candy and Big Macs on a regular basis, no matter how hard you work out. You KNOW that a Starbucks muffin (as referenced in the article) has upwards of 500 calories, and that it is not an appropriate reward for a great run. Is a tough workout going to make you hungry? Of course it will; that’s physiology. But you are not a prisoner to your cravings; you DO have the ability to make choices that will nourish your body AND eliminate cravings for the wrong foods. Replenish with lean turkey or fish, or a refreshing protein shake, or a handful of almonds. Fuel your body with whole grains & sufficient fiber. Guzzle water to quench your thirst, not sugar-laden Gatorade, pop or “energy drinks” that lead to a massive crash later. THINK about your options, THINK about the hard work you just did for yourself and don’t negate it by making poor choices afterward.
Further, TIME is correct in its assertion that working out too hard (for your current fitness level) will cause you to become more sedentary throughout the rest of the day (and the next, if you’re really killing it.) But again, the solution is common sense. Don’t work out that hard. You don’t have to train like you’re headed for the Ironman (unless of course you ARE headed for the Ironman.) If you’re working out to the point that you can’t move afterward, that's silly. Challenge yourself, but make sure you enjoy your workout and don’t use them as an excuse to take the elevator for two floors instead of the stairs. Again, you do have the ability to make the choices that will lead to a healthier body.
The last thing our overfed, undernourished, sedentary culture needs is another excuse to stay glued to the couch, especially from such a well-read, well-respected publication. More than two-thirds of our country is overweight or obese because we move less and consume more. Period. The bottom line is this: exercise and good nutrition ARE inextricably intertwined, and making good choices in both areas will lead to weight loss, better health, enhanced mental, emotional and psychological well-being. I see it every day as our clients reap the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Remember this mantra: Exercise changes the shape of your body; nutrition changes the size.
A side note:
The American College of Sports Medicine released a statement last Friday saying it takes "strong exception" to the Time story's conclusions. "Physical activity is one of the most important behavioral factors in enhancing weight loss maintenance and improving long-term weight loss outcomes," said John Jakicic, who chairs the ACSM's committee on obesity prevention.
One expert quoted in the Time piece, Dr. Timothy Church, said his professional opinions were misrepresented, according to the ACSM statement.
Another ACSM member, Dr. Janet Rankin, said: "A practical response to the claim that exercise makes you eat more and gain weight is to look around. If this were the case, wouldn't those who regularly exercise be the fattest? Obviously, that isn't the case."