photo: Alexandra from MünchenBy Crabby McSlacker
Those of you who are still pissed off at Cranky Fitness for exposing how easy it is to overestimate calories burned by walking may not be happy about some of the information I'm going to discuss in this post.
But as I was following up on an interesting comment that appeared in that last post (thanks JessicaB!) I came across some more depressing research, at least for folks like me who justify caloric indulgence with increased activity. Because according to a bunch of recent health and fitness articles, experts have concluded: when it comes to weight loss, it's pretty much all about diet, not exercise.
A couple examples: "Exercise Alone Does Not Help in Losing Weight," and "To Lose Weight Eating is Far More Important than Exercising More."
It's not too far a leap to imagine some folks concluding there is almost no point in exercising at all! Especially people who don't like to exercise anyway and are hoping for a free pass to say the hell with it and settle down on the couch with a Lean Cuisine and a crate of Diet Pepsi for a 5 hour Netflix binge-watch.
Do I have some cranky things to say about these articles and the "screw exercise it's useless" school of thought? Gosh, perhaps I do!
On the other hand, I don't believe in failing to report important research because we don't like what it says. I fail to report important research all the time, but it's out of sheer laziness and ignorance, a far better reason, don't you think? Anyway, more thoughts on the whole Diet vs Exercise debate below.
Plus, Labor Day has come and gone which means it's the beginning of a new season, right? So it would be awesome if any of you were willing to pop down into the comments and check in with what you've been up to over the summer, or what you're dreaming and scheming about these days, or how the heck you feel about life right now.
Why You Should Still Exercise Despite These Annoying Studies.
I won't belabor this, because Cranky Fitness readers totally get it already: there are a lot of reasons to exercise besides just weight loss.
Like sanity, for one. But there are many others!
So even if those articles are onto something, you ain't off the hook. There is so much research on the many physical and mental health benefits of exercise, that it would fill a huge, (and strangely gravity-defying), pile of books.
Seriously, there's a TON of research out there.
photo: Library Mistress
photo: Library Mistress
The CDC has a list of some of the more obvious health benefits of exercise, and so the Mayo Clinic. (And since they both list "weight loss" as number one we can assume they haven't gotten the memo yet about exercise being useless for such purposes). But new studies come out every day with some new dreadful disease you can better avoid by getting active.
And besides all the long term benefits, anyone who exercises regularly knows dozens of reasons it's a good thing to have in their lives on a daily basis. The ability to feel smugly self-satisfied, for one! I'm pretty sure everyone who is physically able to who skips exercising feels crappier when sedentary. So don't let the weight loss controversy distract you from the obvious: you should be physically active if at all possible.
Why You Should Still Exercise Even if You Are Doing it for Weight Loss.
You can read the articles yourself. Maybe those experts have some research on their side, and some of it may be true for some people. But I have my stubborn opinions, and I'm still not convinced exercise makes no difference when you're trying to shed pounds.
1. Exercise does indeed burn calories, even if not a huge amount.
I'm pretty sure the laws of physics predict that if you use up a bunch of energy in the form of calories, it's gotta come from somewhere. If you don't eat more to compensate, how is that energy going to materialize?
And yes, exercise can cause people to eat more. However, how much of that is due to real physiological hunger, and how much is due to psychological entitlement issues that you can control?
For all those people who are eating only just enough to stave off hunger, and eating nothing but healthy high-fiber nutritious whole foods, increasing exercise might indeed be useless. If you are getting hungrier because of your activity, and eating the right stuff to make that hunger go away, then yeah, you may need to eat more to compensate.
But how many of us are eating solely healthy food, just enough to keep from being really hungry? And are we compensating because we're starving? Or because we feel "entitled?"
I'd wager for most people, we're eating more than we may need not because we're extra hungry, but because food is DELICIOUS and FUN and ENTERTAINING. And any excuse to eat more, like "I worked out," sounds strangely convincing.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Exercise can be a cue to do less recreational eating, not more.
When we get legitimately hungry from activity, some of us tend to actually make better food choices than we do when we are just thinking how tasty something might be. I don't tend to "snack" on homemade chicken and vegetable soup, for instance. It doesn't appeal. But when I'm actually hungry, soup sounds great!
It's my belief that for many people with extra amusement calories in their diets, additional exercise doesn't have to mean increased intake; it will just help you enjoy your calories more because you are actually hungry for them.
2. Exercise leads to better sleep.
If you take the studies that say exercise helps you sleep better and combine them with studies that say sleep loss leads to significant weight gain, you end up appreciating how exercise could have some stealth advantages on the weight loss front.
3. Body Composition Affects Metabolic Rate
You don't build significant muscle mass sitting at your computer, unless perhaps you have massive hands, or you've placed your laptop between the ears of a spirited equine who would like to unseat you.
Challenging Office Ergonomics
While some hopelessly optimistic sources have exaggerated the difference muscle mass can make, there is definitely a consensus among experts that muscle does indeed burn more calories than fat throughout the day. And high-intensity exercise also spikes metabolism for a nice "afterburn" effect.
Again, if you don't pork out to compensate, these are "free" calories you don't get with a sedentary lifestyle.
3. Exercise Builds a Sense of Self-Efficacy Which Is Crucial to Weight Loss
OK, I'm not going to hunt down the research links, but I know I've seen 'em, and is anyone going to argue with me?
When you are physically active on an ongoing basis, you teach yourself that you have strength, willpower, and determination. You get the sense at both the conscious and the unconscious level that your identity is one of "a healthy person." This is not enough, obviously, to magically clean up your eating habits--you have to actively work on that. But realizing you are a healthy person making shitty food choices, there is often some dissonance about this. And once you decide to align your dietary habits with the rest of your healthy lifestyle, you've done all this foundational psychological work to make the task easier.
You CAN make changes, even if they're hard at first.
4. There is Way Too Much Anecdotal Evidence of Exercise Helping People Lose Weight.
You may have reaped the benefits yourself, or you know someone who has--the stories are everywhere. In the last post on walking for weight loss, for example, commenter Megan Olson shared that she lost 80 lbs by walking every day. I don't think all these people are making this shit up, do you?
But, all that said...
Research Does Seem to Say Diet is Hugely Important to Weight Loss
So no matter how much you exercise, if you have weight to lose, use some common sense: you can't keep blowing off bad food choices or eating excessive portions and expect to get results.
But you guys knew that anyway, right?
So, any thoughts on the "exercise makes no difference" research? And what the heck are y'all up to these days?