May 04, 2009

Exercise, Good Health, And Pot Holes

So recently I wrote a de-motivational post about exercise. I do that sometimes. In this one, I outlined the sophisticated mental coaching techniques I use to resist fitness challenges, even the tempting ones like the "100 Burpee Challenge."

Why would I be so mean, when all of you are doing your best to try to get fitter and stronger, not more slothful and lame?

Well first off, Cranky Fitness is not the most serious of health blogs. (Helpful Research Tip: when searching for a completely serious health blog, try one that does not contain the word "whining" in the subtitle. Frequent use of words like "crap" and "dorkitude" and "asshat" are also signs that you are not in the right place).

But also, the post had a secret agenda. I was not just trying to recruit more people into my exercise religion, Crankyism. (Although we have tons of extra slankets in the warehouse and could use a few more converts). I also was trying to do some good things, too, like:

1. Sneakily point out to the super-fit folks that there was yet another challenge to take on that they might be interested in;

2. Post a burpee video so that people could find out what burpees were if they ever wanted to try a new exercise; and

3. Encourage the no-way-in-hell people in their exercise endeavors by subtly pointing out that Crabby McSlacker is herself a no-way-in-hell person--yet she still drags her lazy ass to the gym somewhat regularly.

See how that works? "Demotivating" on the surface, but buried within: creamy filling! pro-exercise subliminal messages! And that's actually the secret formula for many Crabby McSlacker posts. (That and sloppy google research and ungrammatical sentence fragments and strike-out type).

But if you want a truly demotivational article about exercise? I know where you can find one.

Demotivation Warning

Heading off for a tough work-out and want reassurance it's all worth it? Might want to avoid the Health Page at the New York Times.

I was over on there recently and came across a prominently featured article: "Does Exercise Really Keep Us Healthy?"

Well, the title is ominous enough. It's like you don't title an article "Are America's Highways Really Safe?" if you think the answer is yes, they're really safe, gosh darn it! You only call it that if you intend to talk about 50 car pile ups, crumbling overpasses, potholes the size of elephants, and long-haul truckers on meth.

No worries, it's all good!

But stupid me, I actually wanted to find out: Does Exercise Really Keep Us Healthy?

Watch Out, The Answer is Kind of a Downer.

Gina Kolata, whom I usually like, got me really grumpy with this one. She basically takes all those 87 thousand studies you've seen that say how great exercise is great for you, and dismisses or minimizes most all of them.

"While exercise can boost mood, its health benefits have been oversold." All that stuff about heart disease and cancer and blood pressure and osteoporosis and weight loss? She argues that most of the data is either inconclusive (because exercisers tend to have healthier habits to begin with than non-exercisers) or says that at best, the benefits are very, very modest.

She points out for example, a study that showed that "the average amount of muscle that men gained after a serious 12-week weight-lifting program was 2 kilograms, or 4.4 pounds. That added muscle would increase the metabolic rate by only 24 calories a day."


So What To Do With This Annoying Information?

Several possibilities occurred to me:

1. Dig up all the studies I've ever seen that say exercise is really good for your health and assess whether they meet the criteria discussed in the article, or if they were all actually bullshit studies.

2. Re-evaluate all my assumptions about exercise and health. Figure out if I still really want to do the hard stuff I hate if it's not doing much more than "improving my mood."

3. Pretend I didn't see the article because I don't like what it says, despite the fact that it's in the New York Times, which is supposed to be generally reliable source for health news.

4. Write a whiny blog post about about the demotivating New York Times article, assuming that since the article is prominently featured on the page it must have come out recently, and then discover after writing two thirds of the blog post that the stupid thing came out over a year ago and is now old news and probably no one cares, but decide to finish the blog post anyway, because what blogger wants to start over after writing two thirds of a post?

As you can see, I went with option 4!

But for those looking for I-don't-want-to-exercise excuses, you might want to check it out and see if you found it more convincing than I did.

The Real Message Behind The DeMotivating Article?

I think what's behind the whole "exercise is oversold" argument is a valid point: many people think exercise is some sort of miracle weight loss and health solution that will fix everything and make them thin.

For the record: you can not "erase" the effects of a 4,000 calorie junk food dinner with a 150 calorie stroll around the neighborhood or even an intense 800 calorie cross-country run! And you gotta do lots of other things for optimum health, like eat right and not smoke and watch your stress levels and get enough sleep and floss your teeth, etc, etc.

And even if you do exercise constantly you still might be overweight and might even have a heart attack if your genes are plotting against you. It's my belief you'd be at even higher risk for obesity and early death if you were sedentary.

As Much as I Whine About it, I Still Believe in Exercise

I can't erase the cumulative effects of reading, for decades, all kinds of studies saying exercise is awesome for your body and your long-term health. Nor can I ignore how much better I feel when I get regular exercise. So the heck with the New York Times; I'm not doing anything different.

What do you guys think? Does exercise seem essential to your good health, or do you think its benefits are only very modest and it's way oversold? Or are you somewhere in between?


  1. I think that practicing how to move better as in exercise can help us stay in tune with our bodies...which is healthy for us in many many ways!!


  2. Not to make this about me :) but when I was getting tattooed yesterday the artist said she find that people who exercise can handle the pain far better because they are so IN tune with their bodies they can tune OUT of their bodies and feel the pain less (if that makes sense).

    But it is also so true about exercise not being the great panacea.

    I had clients who can to me three times a week for YEARS and lost no weight/gained LITTLE muscle because their eating habits were not so great (to put it nicely).

  3. You said: "Figure out if I still really want to do the hard stuff I hate if it's not doing much more than "improving my mood.""

    Helloooooo, Cranky! "Improving my mood" is not an insignificant benefit! (need I add: especially if part of your name is "Cranky" :-)

    Also, while tattoos are not for me, I definitely am more in tune with my body since I've been exercising, and I can handle pain a lot better!

    I cannot think of a single downside to exercise, as long as you are realistic about what it can - and cannot - do for you.

  4. As much as I hate to exercise I can't deny how much better I feel when I do. My weight isn't budging and as you have read my blog frequently, you already know that I've accepted that. I strongly believe in "health at every size". Meaning that I don't exercise to make my body change because it just isn't going to. I exercise because it energizes me, gets my blood circulating and keeps me flexible despite my stubborn fat. I also feel quite smug when I visit the doctor who is always astonished at how good my blood pressure/heart rate/cholesterol is even though I fall well into the "obese" category. :)

  5. Exercise makes me feel better; I definitely notice a difference when I stop. Plus, I want to be able to do things. I don't want to be huffing and puffing from a walk out to the mail box. So yes, I think exercise has benefits. But no, it does not make the pounds magically drop off - even when eating a mostly healthy diet. Not for me anyway. :(

  6. I think that exercise is better for you than the NYT says. I mean, I know that on days when I work out, I'll eat better. Mainly because I want that hour to have made a difference.

    In my case the correlation between exercise and other good health habits definitely reflects a causation.

  7. Regular exercise helps me sleep better, feel better, and make better food choices. By itself it might not do anything, but in combination with making better choices in other parts of my life, I think exercise definitely improves my life.

  8. Great post!!

    The safest way to travel our highways is from 5000 feet above them!

    I've always liked being physical. If early humans didn't like to be active, they were sabor-tooth tiger food! What happened??

  9. Someday I want to read a post here on snuggies vs. slankets. But anyhow. When research contradicts itself - and it so often does, esp. with Ms. Kolata (did you read her book rethinking thin??) - I have to go back to my personal experience. For me, I'm a much happier and healthier person since learning to exercise. Although I do think she's right about exercise being overrated as a weight loss tool. Rather I think it is a stellar maintenance tool.

  10. Thank for making me giggle this morning -- you are hilarious.
    about the demotivational focus of your entry: eh! I think exercise, like all things, can't be seen as the "end all," magical act that erases everything else we do to our bodies. in my experience, exercise needs to be part of a large network of habits and activities that promote a healthy life. But that's an English major speaking who would have failed chemistry if it weren't for her best friend.

  11. Good post! Except that you've done it again -- you've made me Think first thing in the morning. Cut that out.

    Would it be cynical of me to suggest that the NYT, being a newspaper, exists to sell papers and writing articles that are controversial is a good way to get attention?

  12. English majors are pretty smart, in my biased opinion :)

  13. I feel better physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually when I exercise. It's not the all-encompassing answer to life's problems, but it's a good start. And when I've been exercising regularly I can sneak a bag of chips into my day without so much as a momentary wince.

  14. I am one of the motivationaly challenged!! Try as I might, the effort is just that....a real effort. I get it done, but hold a grudge. Whatcha got for that?? I'd love a kick in the butt of some sort. English majors ROCK!!

  15. I think that just as it's difficult to study the effects of, say, grapefruit consumption on overall health (because people who tend to eat more grapefruit also tend not to smoke, eat fewer Twinkies, drink more water, exercise more, etc), it's difficult to study the effects of exercise on health and draw conclusions which are applicable to everybody, over a long period of time.

    I know that when I work out regularly, I: get more sleep, plan and cook better meals, eat less junk food and drink less soda, feel more at home in my body, have a more positive self-image, have more and better sex, feel more competent taking on challenges at work... you see where I am going with this? When I work out, everything lines up to be awesome. Which of those things has the greatest effect on my long-term health? Does it matter, if workouts are what keeps it all lined up?

  16. Everything contributes. I agree with you...well rounded (and not around the waist line!). Me? I'm motivationally challanged. But, I'm getting there.

  17. Why, if exercise is bad for me, that only makes it seem more alluring, much like french fries and donuts...this was your most motivating post yet.

    Seriously, though, this is what motivates me: casual, unscientific, anecdotal personal observation of the people I know who lead active lives vs. the people who lead sedentary lives. Common sense.

  18. Hi Crabby,

    I always read the Times health page--that may be part of my general confusion!

    I am a diabetic--when I exercise, my sugar levels are better. When I don't they are worse so for me the answer is a simple yes.

    For everyone else I think the answer is still yes. Regular daily exercise keeps spirits lifted which is good for health, it keeps everything moving, joints don't stiffen, etc.

    I don't think we need hours of exercise a day but certainly 30-60 minutes can improved attitude and certainly won't hurt our health.


  19. Much as I love anything that endorses my slacker existence I must confess that I actually feel better after exercising. There are a holy host of other things that don't qualify as exercise that also make me feel better like bitching, eating chocolate and hearing of a great karmic payback. Those things just can't be measured.

  20. As much as I hate dragging my lazy ass onto the treadmill...yes. I think anyone who's maintained at least a semi-regular workout program will tell you no matter how healthy they ate, etc etc, there's something about exercise that leaves you feeling your best.

    I just may not believe it at 5am when the alarm goes off. :)

  21. Demotivating works on me IF I don't know it's demotivating. Now you gone and ruined it! :) Vee at

  22. I think the article is interesting (although I also think Kolata is a bit of a contrarian and cherry-picker) but I think what it boils down to is that you can't out-exercise a crappy diet or a crappy lifestyle. I think gurus and diet doctors have conditioned people to believe that there has to be a simple magic bullet out there that will be the answer to health and/or weight problems. And there just isn't one.

    Honestly, though, even if exercise had no effect beyond improving mood it would be totally worth it for me. I'm no fun to live with when I'm not getting regular exercise.

  23. Exercise is essential.

    I can attest to this based on my own experience, which is what really matters to each individual.

    I read the article, and I, too, took exception to the dismissive tone of the author.

    Case in point: all exercise does is "boost your mood"? EVEN if that's all it does, that's HUGE. Countless people take drugs with dangerous side effects (including making one feel suicidal) to "boost their mood".

    I think I'm going to write an article entitled, "Clean Air and the Great Outdoors--Are They Really Better Than Smog and Overcrowding?" and submit it to the NY Times for publication. Seems like they'd print it.

  24. I agree with Merry that controversy is what makes newspaper sell. If we read every article and take the writer’s words as gospel we'd be living a life of whimpering souls in darkness frightened by our own shadows.

    As for those of us that feel exercise is good; we need a goal or a reachable level to make sense of how we treat this chemical makeup of skin, bones, blood and goo we call a body.

  25. I think she's a bit off at the benefits of exercise, but even if it is all true, she missed one mighty benefit:

    Last week I talked a friend of mine to go to a kickboxing class with me at the gym. She's got a membership card that's been collecting dust for at least a year and I've lately been in tune with my inner gym rat and have been going five or six days a week. (Now if I could figure out where the inner gym rat juice is coming from and bottle it and sell it, I'd be rich...)

    Anyway, benefit of regular exercise not noted by the article: the sweet, sweet satisfaction of taking a class at the gym where your friend you outweigh by about sixty pounds needs to take a break and is dying just during the warmup.

    Ahh. That was the best motivation I've ever had. She barley made it limping through the class, having to stop at points and march in place and just moving her arms for the jumping jacks, and I could have done more when it was over.

    You're (and they're, I guess) completely right about the exercise not being the great miracle - or I wouldn't be sixty pounds heavier than my eight inch taller, non-exercising friend (curse you genetics, curse you!!). However, I am a lot less likely to want to swing by a McDonald's while my hair is still wet from sweat. Perhaps she should have looked more into the correlation between exercisers eating healthier a bit more. I think it's one of the main side effects. ;)

  26. Oh for Pete's sake. If you didn't already have the trademark on the word, I would say this made me cranky. (And yes I did laugh too, in a cranky-ish way.)

    I can't stand being a wimp. I like to be able to get myself up the subway stairs and not have to stand there huffing and puffing and seeing spots before my eyes.

    What's wrong just to exercise so that you get strong? Suppose I had to escape a burning bus or something? Being in, say, my mother-in-law's shape (which is to say round, squishy and practically immobile) could be extremely hazardous to your health. I'm terrified I'll end up like her--that's my biggest motivator.

  27. I think some people do put too much faith in exercise. They think it's a free pass to gorge themselves, for instance.

    But I think if you aren't expecting miracles or a cure all - exercise is such a great thing.

    It might be me just getting old - but when I miss a few sessions at the gym my body lets me know loud and clear that it's not happy. Less exercise and I just feel blah, mentally and physically.

  28. I absolutely am with you on your conclusions! For sure, all the exercise in the world is not going to offset bad eating. I have seen this in action with clients years ago & also with people that work out at the same time as I do... seen them for years & they never change physically. Food is definitely a huge part of the weight loss equation!

    Saying that, I am going to dismiss the writer's rants. I have seen so many benefits from my workouts. I have done the all cardio thing & woke up & added weights as well. I gained plenty of muscle & lost body fat even at an older age. My blood pressure decreased & sometimes it would not register on those machines at the drug stores because my resting heart rate was pretty low. The doc was impressed with how good my bones looked for my age & osteoporosis is such a big prob for older folks. And, I can eat more than when I was younger & did no weight training.

    Yes, some of the healthiest people may die early anyway but I rather try to do my best to combat it all.

  29. I'm into the excercise thing every morning for an hour. It's not because I love it, necessarily, but it has become a necessity for me. I've also had to drag my lazy butt down the stairs on to the treadmill, and finish with other stuff that I do routinely everday! I wish I knew of interesting ways to change this, and whether it really is helping prolong my life!

  30. Hopefully this will make sense.

    For what it's worth, after chemo, cancer, and believing I was going to be dead at any moment, I found that exercise helped me know that I was 'back into my body.' While cancer makes a person feel powerless, exercise made me feel powerful. It helped me feel like I was in charge.

    Once I got back into exercise, I felt like I could give my body a fighting chance. The feeling is akin to being disconnected or connected, and it depends on a person's preference as to what they want to be. If cancer (or any disease) comes along, I want to be connected.

  31. Exercise is essential to my sanity. I'd go nuts if I didn't get out and move, even a little bit, every day.
    But, yes, you DO have to have healthy habits all around in order to reap thew benefits.
    (I used to bash my head against the steering wheel when, at a red light on Sunset Blvd., I'd see people walking out of Crunch fitness, holding a super-health-immunity-immortality smoothie and stopping to light a cigarette.)

  32. As much as I dislike exercising, there is zero doubt that I feel better for it. That's proof enough for me.

  33. I agree with attrice entirely regarding Gina Kolata. Is she even a scientist? I donated her book Ultimate Fitness to charity this morning, along with others. As for exercise, if mood wasn't enough, there are other non-weight but health related benefits that seem to go with exercise, including blood sugar and insulin and flexibility and being able to run for a bus, etc. Also, I think weight loss and maintenance is harder without it, though there may be studies that are inconclusive.

  34. Cmon, it's the New York Times, nuff said. It takes diet and exercise.

  35. Does it make you healthier? Probably. Will it make you thinner? Probably not.

    But I'm a nicer person when I can take my aggression out on the treadmill instead of on my coworkers. So THEY'RE grateful I exercise. Even if they don't know how grateful they are. ;)

  36. "Thank you for the enlightening post. Appreciate it a lot.
    Subliminal messaging can indeed be very powerful. Interesting enough, a website (non-aff link) sells a bunch of subliminal programs. Might be interesting to check them out. "

  37. Great post, Crabby!

    "For the record: you can not "erase" the effects of a 4,000 calorie junk food dinner with a 150 calorie stroll around the neighborhood or even an intense 800 calorie cross-country run!" <-- love this part, and I think this is the main point... it is a common misconception bred by the media and reality TV shows and ignorant people that if they just take the stairs instead of the elevator and park further away from the store, I'll lose 20 pounds this year without even trying! It's so much more than that... Darnit.

  38. what this downer article does not point out is that if you do not exercise your whole life, when you hit old age you are going to be screwed, pills, nursing homes, hospitals... The benefits of exercise are evident in the 70 + year-olds who make activity a part of their day every day. They are constantly passing me (28 years old) up on the hiking trails in my southern AZ home.

  39. I find that when people poopoo exercise, it's because they're looking at a single indicator, like weight or muscle mass. Right, if you eat 4000 calories a day, burning 500 exercising won't help you lose weight. That doesn't mean it won't help with insulin sensitivity, mood, circulation, mobility, etc. etc. etc. I'm always suspicious of folks who cherry pick their studies, or choose far-out alternate conclusions, or find one random study out of 500 that is inconclusive or contradicting, and use that to cause confusion. But, maybe she's right on the exercise thing-Rush Limbaugh says it's dangerous, and he's always right, right?


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