July 07, 2009

Exercise? Why Bother? (a rant)

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I acknowledge that journalists need to make a living as much as anyone else. I just wish they could do it without messing with people's heads.

Case in point, an article, by Jacqueline Stenson, on MSNBC.1

The article can be summed up thusly:

- Exercising doesn’t increase your metabolic rate after you stop exercising

- Exercising doesn’t help you lose weight or keep it off

- Just give up and order an extra large pizza tonight2

Seriously, this is one depressing article.

I acknowledge that the author needed to make what she wrote seem interesting and “different.” Knocking exercise certainly qualifies as different. I realize that she wanted to be controversial, and that for most journalists, and a lot of other people, it’s better to be provocative than intelligent. (It doesn’t matter what you say, so long as it gets people to listen to you.) Even so, this article pisses me off.

It's not balanced. The general impression is bad.

The article states flatly that:

- Scientists can't prove exercise increases the metabolism (the inference being that therefore there's not much point to it)

- The calorie-burning difference between fat and muscle is negligible, so don't expect much from lifting weights.

Oh, as a grudging end note, she mentions one woman who says exercising makes her feel better -- as if that wasn't about the best damn form of motivation that there is.

It's as bad as the column that Gina Kolata wrote in the New York Times.3 [You might need to register to read this.]

Kolata agrees that exercise isn't going to do a thing to help you lose weight. You're doomed because the more you exercise, the more you eat.

Then, if you're still reading by this point, presuming you haven't decided to give up on even reading about exercise since after all there's no point to it, she adds that the scientists have not been able to prove that exercise isn't helpful either. (Because people who exercise tend to do other healthy things like not smoking cigarettes or running with scissors.)


Never mind all the studies that show and show and show that exercise whups diabetes' flabby ass, kicks fatty liver out the door, and oh yeah, can put you in a better mood. Stenson wants to focus on the thought that exercise doesn't burn as much fat as scientists had thought, and Kolata wants you to focus on the fact it probably won't help you lose weight. If these articles had been written by a doctor or other health care professional, they would've conscientiously added "but do it anyway; it helps in other ways." Not these women.

I grant you that exercise won't burn fat, unless it's strenuous exercise. To quote the illustrious Dr. Merkin, "A study from Oslo, Norway shows that you have to exercise at almost 50 percent of your maximum capacity to increase your metabolism." But who the Frapp4 cares? Even if you're giving less than 50% of your maximum capacity, even if you're not losing weight, you're still getting fit, keeping healthy and whupping the ass of nasty diseases. Beats the hell out of sitting on the couch chowing down on a 'za and waiting for the end of the world.

Okay. I'm done now. It's safe to come out.

Seems only fair to ask if there are any studies (or, ahem, blogs) that really make you want to rant.

Note: The illustrious Charlotte of The Great Fitness Experiment has a more favorable opinion of Gina Kolata's viewpoint, which is shown in her review of Gina Kolata's book Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss -- and the Myths and Realities of Dieting.

1From May -- yes, I do read slowly sometimes.
2Okay, that was the inference that I drew from reading this article. Your mileage may vary.
3Way back in January '08. Sometimes I read realllllly slowly.
4Personally, I think the word frappuccino makes an excellent swear word.


  1. I am with you 100% on the rant! I plan to just ignore what she thinks. I know how I feel when I exercise and how exercise makes me look. Which is all good! :)

    I think I was the first to comment. A first for me! I am usually snoring downunder whilst you are furiously typing. :)

  2. Good point, Kellie. I was kinda furious when I typed this ;)

  3. "it’s better to be provocative than intelligent" - I love it. Yeah exercise stinks....especially those awful endorphins which make me want to do it constantly.

  4. There is a lot of truth in what they write - exercise doesn't help us lose weight in the way we've been led to believe (metabolism, calorie-burning difference between fat and muscle, etc), but it is vital for weight loss in OTHER ways. For instance, exercise affects 18 difference hormones, which affects all systems in the body, including water retention, body weight, metabolism, appetite, etc. Furthermore, aerobic exercise moves the lymph and speeds up detoxification. Our bones are kept strong and our cells are better oxygenated when we exercise. And let's not forget that we burn calories, which is vital for weight loss.

    Being physically active is a prerequisite for good health, no matter what age, shape or weight you are. Exercise is not primarily a weight loss tool, it's the path to health.

    And yes, I get very angry when the media distort the real issues... which they do on a daily basis! Many people have a real resistance towards exercise and they will no doubt read these articles and feel justified in not bothering with it.

  5. Hmmmm, I better tell her, fat me 6 months ago - no exercise, slimmer me now, a whole lotta exercise. My studies prove that exercise does help!

  6. Im so with you.
    and it seems in todays economy journalists are more desperate than ever to write the next!big!shocking! expose.

    so just to clarify: we shouldnt toss our equipment, cancel our gym memberships and buy caftans?

    I shouldnt rename my blog MizLollingAbout?

    I await yer next MerryCommand!

  7. I agree with Merry! What do those two jounalists look like?

  8. Who cares what she thinks? I never moved and got up to 305 pounds. I started moving and lost 150 pounds. Tell me it doesn't work.

    After 12 years of exercise I'm not about to stop now. I know my blood pressure lowered, I feel better, and I look lots better.

    Those articles are great for controversy, but I think they can be dangerous for people who are struggling with the "should I, or shouldn't I try and get healthy."

    Thanks for pointing these out! They're not the only ones out there I'm sure.

  9. Arrgggh!

    I hate when they take such a stupid argument to refute: the idea that if you exercise, you can eat whatever you want without gaining weight. No educated, reasonably intelligent person believes that to begin with!

    And did anyone think that one "normal" workout would keep you steadily burning fat for 24 hours? I sure didn't.

    While there are a TON of health benefits from exercise, I also still think it helps with weight loss. When they study those people who have lost weight and kept it off for years? The vast majority exercise at least an hour a day.

  10. Yeah, people who talk about exercise like its only purpose is to burn fat make me want to throw a kettlebell at their heads.

  11. I read a small portion of one of the articles (before I was disgusted at the poor reporting). I don't mind contraversy...just because I don't like the message doesn't mean they shouldn't report it. But, that doesn't seem to be exactly what is going on. What I think is going on is that, like always, they take scientific findings and twist it to make it more interesting. What the researchers said was that if you replace all the calories that you burned, not that exercise has no merrit. But, that's of course the spin they took on it. It makes me especially mad because I am a researcher and you see this all.the.friggin.time. GRRR. Hate reporters. And advertisers (sorry if that's your chosen profession!)

    What I took from the latter part of the article is that we should use weights more often. YAY.

    sorry for a rant of my own. It's too early to be aggrivated! lol.

  12. (You're so right about "frappucino.")

    These "exercise might not be all that good for you" people remind me of the "global warming is just a hoax" people.

  13. OK, I say get her in my vicinity! Yes, food we put in our mouths makes a HUGE difference BUT I would not look like I do at 51.5 years old without exercise - weights, cardio, core & flexibility/stretching. When she gets osteoporosis or heart disease or one of the other things that exercise/weights help, she can them come talk to me about that article! How is that for a rant!

  14. Hmmm... can't agree with you on this one, Merry. Having read both the articles (and Gina Kolata's book Rethinking Thin), I think they say important things about the way people like to oversimplify "healthy living." Of course exercise is good for you! In SO many ways that many other articles have enumerated. But it is not the magic bullet for weight loss. Weight maintenance? Yes. Joy? Yes. Less depression, more energy, clearer thinking? Yes, yes and yes! And yet exercise does make you hungrier. This is the problem with telling people they wouldn't be overweight if they'd just "eat less and move more." I'm glad that some reporters focus on the research that doesn't always tell us what we want to hear:)

  15. I'm getting the feeling you ladies are cat people! Super cute pic! :)

    Interesting article, but I think I'm going to take my chances and keep exercising! lol! ;)

  16. So I should stop working my core and go back to having a sore lower back and whacked out sciatica, is that the gist? Oh, and I suppose I should stop caring that I can carry my grandkids DESPITE my shoulder injuries, just stop exercising and let the scar tissue take over. Yes! I was looking for an excuse not to hold those kids anymore! Good grief...*bfer* (that's big Frappin' eyeroll :))

  17. Well, Frapp! (Thanks for the new word I can say in front of the kids.)

    This is one report I'm going to ignore. Exercise has done me too much good over the years.

  18. Yah. Everyone told me that it's soooo hard to lose weight when you're over 50. I lost 40 lbs walking every night and cutting back on what I ate. I did this while eating Ben and Jerry's every night. I feel better than I did when I was 20.

    Don't believe everything you read!

  19. I totally would have loved these articles when I was at my highest weight and had no intentions to change - more justification for me to stay fat and lazy (not saying that every overweight person is lazy, just that I was - seriously lazy!).

    Mainstream media - gotta take so much of what they say with a grain of salt - IMO, there are too many media outlets competing with each other and it seems that everything gets printed, whether it's been vetted or not.

    That lolcat picture and caption? I love it so much!

  20. Physical fitness is such an individual thing. I like to exercise and it seems to work for me. The benefits are much more than weight control, although that is what seems to motivate most people. If you can get beyond that and just into the pleasures of being physical, I think it will all be a much more rewarding experience.

  21. Amen! These reports drive me insane. And they wonder why obesity rates are up--conflicting reports like these only confuse people to the point that they give up. Argh!

  22. I'm so going to start using "frappuccino" as my chosen swear word. I won't mind if the 2 year old repeats that one... : ) Thanks Merry!

    I've about given up on mainstream media. I'm tired of the sensationalism. I think I'll just lump these folks in with the "climate change is a farce" folks. Right at the top of my ignore list.

  23. Is this from the same network/medium that brought us the interview with Michael Jackson's chimp, Bubbles? 'Nuff said.

  24. Why bother exercising?! Well, FRAPP (I like that new word too)I'll tell you why! I feel better, look better and that makes me more pleasant to be around.

    I'm just glad we have outlets like these where we can rant and rave and get validation ;)

  25. This article is so counter-intuitive and borders on indiocy. Of course exercise is going to help you lose weight. She even says that within the article, but she buries it with myth-busting moves.

    I didn't lose 100 pounds by just eating salads. I lost it by exercising with healthy eating.

    But you watch, this article is going to be used as a shield for those who will not engage in a fitness routine to reach and stay at a healthy weight.

    *slams forehead onto desk*

  26. This all ignores the main point of exercise: when a serial killer is chasing the author, how much help will years of dieting with no exercise benefit her? Yeah, that's what I thought. Following the advice in the article is just going to make weak serial killer bait!

  27. I'm going to have to go with Charlotte on this one. After having read the one article (I didn't read the NY Times one), I don't think the author is saying that exercise has no merit. That's not what I got out of it at all. But she's dispelling the myth that exercise will burn calories at a higher rate once we're done exercising. That's not to say that exercise is bad, just that it isn't the silver bullet that will solve all our problems.

    I've seen people (and been one of them) who'll go work out for an hour on the elliptical, burn a couple hundred calories, then run and get a 500 calorie shake at the juice bar. There're a lot of people out there who think they can eat whatever they want when they're exercising because they forget the calories in/calories out rule (and yes, I'm guilty of it too).

    So while I think the author could have been a little more supportive of exercise (and certainly at least mentioned all the other benefits of it), I think it is a story worth reporting that the metabolish does go crazy for the day after the exercise. And as a fitness professional, I need to stop telling people it does!

  28. Hey Leth G!

    I checked the rulebook, and it is permissible for you and Charlotte to completely disagree with me :)

    I think what we're disagreeing about is more the overall impression that the reader is left with after reading this article. There are facts there, but the way they're presented is somewhat misleading and, in my opinion, hella depressing.

    (I love Cranky Fitness readers -- even when we don't agree, I still think they're intelligent and worth listening to. Sadly, there are some blogs out there where that's not always the case.)

  29. The way I read the articles is that exercise is good but it's not the only thing. I've always had an issue with the idea that someone is supposed to lose weight by going for 3x 10 minute strolls over the course of the day and think that it's the cure-all. Exercise is great for many, many things but it's part of the lifestyle that makes you lose weight and be healthier.

    The NY Times article is good that way I think - pointing out that it has been oversold but that it is beneficial - you get stronger and healthier and happier.

    I think it's all in the reading - you can take it positively or negatively quite easily.

  30. I also agree 100% on the rant.
    I learned recently NOT to equate exercise with weight loss. I work out because I enjoy it and it makes me feel good. There are tons of health benefits, but we narrow it down to how many calories we burn, and that's a shame.
    Maybe some good will come of these articles: maybe folks will focus less on calorie burn and more on overall health.
    But I doubt it.

  31. You should give seminars on the art of the rant.

    Why can't we just all agree that exercise is good for our health and leave it at that? Seems like those "experts" are just wasting their time.

  32. Yeah, I can see both sides of it. There are misconceptions out there, but leaving the final impression "What's the point?" is not good either. I do love how I feel and LOOK with a habit of exercising.
    Path to Health

  33. Hey there! Just wanted to let you know that I'm linking you now cause I love your posts. I look forward to reading more in the future!

  34. Oooh, I've been steamed about that too. It's one thing to acknowledge that weight/fat loss is complicated/difficult; that NYT writer implies it's impossible and pointless. Hate her stuff. I guess all that healthy, fit-looking exercisers have not had the benefit of reading the NYT.

  35. I find that the more I do cardio (especially noticeable when I'm running more), the hunrier I get and the more I eat.

    I am so boggled by everyone who claims to have lost xlbs from running because if I eat less, I don't have the energy to run, and if I run a lot, I gotta eat SO MUCH MORE. Which is good, because losing weight makes me bad at exercise. heh.

  36. um, it's pretty simple science. Moving burns calories, not massive amounts of calories but calories nonetheless. Like, I walk about 45 minutes a day and at 241 lbs that burns about 340 calories (at a 3 mph pace). I have never assumed after taking my walk, that my metabolism is set upward the whole day. I would say it lasts about an hour after...I sweat easier and my body is still fatigued. I count calories. walking and counting calories leads to a nice calorie deficit. If you are using exercise to lose fat, think of it as a nice way to add an additional calorie deficit to your nutritional calorie deficit, and you should be fine.

  37. kellie i like your post very much. exercise is good to lose the weight and to look graceful. its a really good point.

  38. Well, I don't pay much attention to studies when my personal experience provides such a direct counter-argument.

    I (unknowingly) had Type II diabetes and was about 40 pounds overweight. I ignored the weird, buzzy-shocky sensation I always had in my feet (among other telltale signs), but couldn't ignore the belly fat that would NOT budge.

    I was seeing frustratingly slow results until I doubled the cardio and began lifting weights 3-4 times a week--very heavy and slow so as to build muscle.

    And my efforts suddenly began to pay off. All the new muscle (VISIBLE, mind you!) busted the plateau right out of the water.

    When I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, the doc told me I could avoid all but one low-dose med because the exercise and weight loss (about 30 lbs.) handled it.

    He's a well-known endocrinologist and explained that exercise burns the sugar that insulin resistance leaves behind. Without it, those sugar calories strongly favor loading up on the midsection, and you keep producing more insulin...and it's a vicious cycle. Without costly meds, exercise (well, plus cutting down on sugar) is the ONLY means of countering insulin resistance!

    So don't give me a bunch of bullshit about exercise being a waste of time. I'll take my doctor's considerable expertise over a bunch of corporate media types any day. They clearly don't always exercise such great judgment in choosing what to prioritize for coverage. If I see another Michael Jackson piece, I may give my TV away.

  39. Kristin that is such a great testimonial I'm gonna keep it in mind the next time I'm tempted to skip my workout! Thanks!

  40. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  41. when i was young, in the 80's, i jumped rope for an hour a day, did calesthenics for another half hour and dieted (1200 calories a day) in order to maintain 130 pounds on my 5'5" inch frame. i'm 52 now and have gained a significant amount of weight and i just say to heck with it. it simply isn't worth what i'd have to do to be thin. i eat what i want, don't exercise and if that means i die a few years sooner, then at least the years i was here i did what i wanted and lived on my own terms. we are all going to die anyway. no one is getting off the planet alive. i say die young, stay pretty.


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