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“Of course [exercise] is good for you, but it won’t make you lose weight.” TIME magazine cover: “The Myth About Exercise,” August 17, 2009

Talking Back to TIME on Exercise and Weight Control

John Cloud’s TIME magazine cover story Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin has created a brouhaha. Mr. Cloud writes that years of “obsessive” and “grim” exercise have left him with “gut fat that hangs over my belt when I sit.” He believes that exercise has caused him to overeat and may actually be “keeping him from losing weight.” He says exercise stimulates hunger, making it harder to create a calorie deficit. His well-written and persuasive article makes the case for this hypothesis.

I’m going to summarize the arguments from experts on the other side, and then give some thoughts of my own.

There’s No Myth About Exercise, the Cooper Institute fired back online. In support, they quote from an open letter to TIME from Dr. Tim Church, whose study— women who exercised didn’t lose significantly more body fat than non-exercising controls—is a centerpiece of the Cloud article. Church wrote: “The majority of people lose weight in response to exercise training even when no dietary advice is provided…The main point we are trying to make when addressing 'compensation' is that regular exercise is not a license to eat anything you want.”

The Cooper Institute also links to an energetic response from the American College of Sports Medicine. The ACSM online press release begins: “Leading experts in exercise and weight management have taken strong exception” to the TIME cover story. They scoff at Mr. Cloud’s blanket statement that "exercise is pretty useless” for weight loss.

In addition to Dr. Church, who says “exercise and diet go together,” ACSM looks to John Jakicic, PhD, FACSM, chair of their committee on obesity prevention. “It is clear…that physical activity is one of the most important behavioral factors in enhancing weight loss maintenance and improving long-term weight loss outcomes,” says Jakicic.

In conclusion, the position paper quotes a simple observation from nutrition and exercise expert Janet Rankin, PhD: “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?”

You can read the TIME cover story and the responses online. I’m going to offer my thoughts on several of the points made by Mr. Cloud, and then tell you about a new study suggesting that exercise reduces appetite and burns fat before carbs.

Beating the Odds

Mr. Cloud bemoans the fact that he has weighed “the same 163 lb.” most of his adult life. “I have never been overweight,” he writes. Most obesity experts, I believe, would say he’s doing significantly better than the average man on the street, who will gain approximately one pound each year after age 25, or a total of 30 pounds of excess weight by age 55; see “Fat Loss Mother Natures Way” http://cbass.com/MOTHERNA.HTM . He’s unhappy that, after exercising four days a week (gym cardio, personal trainer, "body wedge” class, run outdoors), he still has some fat on his tummy.

He admits to “gastronomical indulgences during the week,” and says he “often eats more on the days I work out than on the days I don’t.” He doesn’t tell us what or how he eats otherwise. His message to TIME readers could just as well be that exercise gives him more leeway to satisfy his hunger without gaining weight.

By maintaining a steady bodyweight, Mr. Cloud is beating the odds by a wide margin

As a general proposition, people who exercise regularly find it easier—not harder—to balance energy expenditure and food intake. That stands to reason, doesn’t it? Active people burn more calories and, therefore, can eat more without gaining weight. People who don’t exercise tend to fall victim to “creeping obesity.” They eat a little more than they need on a regular basis. Predictably, over time, the fat piles up on their body.

Our bodies are not made for sedentary living. We are designed to move. See “Miracle of Movement” http://cbass.com/MiracleMovement.htm . Our appetite control system works better when we exercise regularly, just as our ancient ancestors did to survive.  

Exercise seems to have allowed Mr. Cloud to avoid creeping obesity. Perhaps his article should be titled “Exercise Works.”

The Joy of Exercise

“On Wednesday a personal trainer will work me like a farm animal…sometimes to the point that I am dizzy—an abuse for which I pay as much as I spend on groceries in a week.” Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? That may be part of Mr. Cloud’s problem with exercise. He is a regular exerciser, so he can stick to an exercise regimen, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy what he’s doing. As one who’s been working out and enjoying it for over 50 years, I have some thoughts on how Mr. Cloud might increase his enthusiasm for exercise.

People think success in training comes from discipline and suffering. In my experience, that's wrong. Success comes from making each workout an enjoyable experience, one you want to repeat over and over. I suggest that Mr. Cloud sit down—with or without his personal trainer—and review his exercise plan. What part of it does he enjoy? And what does he hate?

Most of us enjoy the things we do best. While it may sound counterintuitive, it's best to focus on your strengths. Having years of exercise under his belt, Mr. Cloud probably has a pretty good idea whether he’s an endurance guy or a strength guy. He might be a little of both. It doesn't take long to find out. I learned early on, as a member of the wrestling team in high school, that I didn’t enjoy running laps to improve my endurance. I did it, but only because the coach made it mandatory. I'm not a marathoner. I'm a strength guy, so I favor—and enjoy—weight training and high-intensity intervals.

I suggest that Mr. Cloud emphasize activities he enjoys and does best. I also suggest that he train in a purposeful way. (Many people go to the gym and flail around, with no specific objective in mind. That leads to boredom and eventual dropout.) For me, purposeful training is continually challenging myself with reasonable goals. I plan each workout for success. When I achieve a goal, I formulate a new goal. Nothing is more motivating than progress toward a meaningful goal. Success makes you want to continue training.

If goal setting for every workout doesn’t appeal to Mr. Cloud, he might try hiking, chopping wood, gardening, or staying active in other ways. The possibilities are endless; any activity that has meaning to Mr. Cloud is good. The key is sustainability. When he wears out the utility of an activity, find something else that serves and pleases him. If he does that, my guess is he will want to keep exercising for the rest of his life. What’s more, he will probably never be overweight.

Hard Is Good

Mr. Cloud argues that hard exercise is self defeating; it causes you to compensate by eating more or being less active. That’s why, he speculates, “Even my four hours of exercise a week aren’t eliminating all my fat. It’s likely that I am more sedentary during my nonexercising hours than I would be if I didn’t exercise with such Puritan fury.”

He cites obesity researchers who now believe that “very frequent, low-level activity” may work better. “You cannot sit still all day and then have 30 minutes of exercise without producing stress on the muscles,” says one expert. “The muscles will ache, and you may not want to move after…It would be better to distribute the movements throughout the day.”

“Actually,” Cloud continues, “it’s not clear that vigorous exercise like running carries more [health] benefits than a moderately strenuous activity like walking while carrying groceries.”

Some may say that, but I believe it’s generally a mistake to avoid high-intensity exercise. (There are exceptions, of course, such as those with an acute medical problem.) We need look no further than this website for evidence that overloading the body’s muscles and cardiovascular system periodically is good for our health and our body composition. In my opinion, it also spurs motivation and gives exercise meaning.  

Exercise without challenge can be and often is mind-numbing. Challenging yourself to improve—pushing yourself beyond where you’ve been before—is energizing and exciting. It makes you feel good physically and mentally. It makes you want to keep training. I know. It has kept me going for over 50 years. As I wrote in Challenge Yourself, “Challenge lights the fire. Progress keeps it burning bright.”

High-intensity exercise—overload—is also good for us. Let’s review some example discussed here previously.

Overload builds fitness, and greater fitness means longer life. A study published March 14, 2002, in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that exercise capacity is perhaps the most powerful predictor of mortality. They found a direct relationship between greater fitness and longer survival. See “Greater Fitness, Longer Life” http://www.cbass.com/GreaterFitness.htm

Keeping your weight under control is important to your health and longevity, but being lean and fit is better. A 2004 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that women who were both lean and physically active had the lowest mortality. Applauding the Harvard study, Dr. Timothy Church of the Cooper Institute of Aerobics Research told the press: “If you’re lean but you’re sedentary, don’t fool yourself. You’re still at risk. You need to get physically active.” (Yes, the same Dr. Church featured in the TIME article.) See “Fit But Fat Risky” http://www.cbass.com/Fitbutfat.htm

If you want to be really fit, you’ve got to train hard. Intensity trumps volume. A 2005 study from Canada found that about two minutes of very intense exercise (15 minutes over 2 weeks) produced the same or better results than previously shown after two hours a day at about 65% of VO2max, or 20 hours over two weeks. See “Sprints Build Endurance!” http://www.cbass.com/Sprintendurance.htm

Another 2005 study found that, in women as well as men, exercise capacity is a powerful predictor of longevity. Commenting on the study, RealAge.com recommended adding short bursts of more intense activity to your workout. They explained that you must go beyond your comfort zone from time to time to improve exercise capacity. In other words, you must work harder than you’re accustomed to in order to add life to your years and years to your life. See “Exercise Capacity and Longevity—in Women” http://www.cbass.com/Exercisecapwomen.htm

Finally, we have a new book (2008) that should be of great interest to Mr. Cloud. The book is by John J. Ratey, M.D, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. It’s called SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Ratey calls exercise "the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.” That revelation “sparked” the book.

“The best advice,” says Ratey, “is to get fit and then continue challenging [yourself]. If you get your body in shape, your mind will follow.” That’s instructive, but what Mr. Cloud will likely find most interesting is the author’s anecdote about intervals and his tummy fat problem.

Dr. Ratey confesses that, although he has exercised continuously throughout his life, interval training is new to him. Two days a week,” he relates, “I started including a handful of sprints during my treadmill runs, and let me tell you, they hurt. Just writing about it makes me cringe a little, but it was well worth the effort. After one month of this business, I lost the final ten pounds I’d been after for years—it peeled right off my midsection.”

For more details, see “Reboot Your Brain with Exercise” http://www.cbass.com/RebootBrain.htm 

Now, let’s look at the new study dealing with exercise, appetite, and body fat accumulation.

How Exercise Works

A new study (American Journal of Physiology, September 2, 2009) sheds light on how exercise works to prevent weight regain. The National Weight Control Registry (http://www.cbass.com/MASTERS.HTM ) has found that 90% of people who lose weight—and keep it off—make exercise a regular part of their life. The new study, lead by Paul S. MacLean, Center for Human Nutrition, Department of Medicine, University of Colorado-Denver, may have uncovered the physiological connection between exercise and appetite. It's more complex—and more interesting—than calories consumed and calories expended.

MacLean and his colleagues used obesity-prone rats. For the first 16 weeks, the rats ate a high-fat diet, as much as they wanted, and remained sedentary. They were then put on a diet. For the following two weeks, the animals ate a low-fat and low-calorie diet, losing about 14% of their body weight. The rats maintained the weight loss by dieting for eight more weeks. During this period, half the rats exercised regularly on a treadmill (30 min/day, 6 days/wk) while the other half remained sedentary.

The next part of the study, the relapse phase, spotlights the effects of exercise.

In the final 8-weeks, the rats stopped dieting and ate as much low-fat food as they wanted. The rats in the exercise group continued to exercise and the sedentary rats remained sedentary.

As you probably guessed, compared to the sedentary rats, the exercisers regained less weight during the relapse period. Significantly, they also demonstrated a reduced drive to overeat and established a lower plateau of energy consumed and energy expended, making it easier to “defend” a lower body weight. That’s the end result. The physiological changes in the exercisers are the real story. Two major differences were observed in how the two groups processed and stored food.

The exercisers burned fat first, saving carbohydrates for later in the day. The sedentary rats, on the other hand, burned carbs first, while sending fat from the diet to fat tissue. You may have heard that fit people are fat burners, while out-of-shape people are sugar burners. This study appears to verify that proposition.

Secondly, the exercisers accumulated fewer fat cells than the sedentary group. Exercise seemed to prevent the increase in fat cells observed in the non-exercisers. In the sedentary rats, new fat cells appeared early in the relapse period.

The good news gets even better when you hear how these changes act to minimize overeating. (The exercising rats were apparently unenthusiastic about answering questions regarding their level of hunger.)

“The normal response to a large influx of calories,” the researchers explained, “is suppressed fat oxidation [burn], enhanced glucose [carbohydrate] oxidation, and the trafficking of dietary fat to adipose tissue.” This response is notoriously strong after a period of fasting or dieting. What’s more, the burning away of the body’s carbohydrates appears to cause hunger and increase appetite. After dieing, “most people…are pushed by their biology to overeat and regain the weight they worked so hard to lose.”

The effect of exercise was explained in a press release by the American Physiological Society, the publisher of the study. “Exercise blunted this fuel preference, favoring the burning of fat for energy needs and saving ingested carbohydrates so that they could be used later in the day. Taken together, the exercise led to a much lower appetite and fewer calories ending up in fat tissue.”

In addition, the observation that exercise prevented the development of new fat cells “may represent another beneficial effect of increased physical activity,” the researchers wrote. It would explain “the reduced rate of weight gain early in relapse, as well as the different homeostatic steady state that defends a lower body weight and fat mass.” It would also explain why sedentary rats overshoot their previous weight when they relapse—their new fat cells fill up.

In summary, the researchers wrote: “The fact that regular endurance exercise after calorie-restricted weight loss has such profound effects on energy balance, fuel utilization, lipid accretion, and peripheral homeostatic signals may explain why exercise is so critical to weight regain prevention. Understanding the mechanisms…is likely to be actively pursued in future studies.”

To Mr. Cloud and TIME, I respectfully suggest that they postpone the requiem for exercise as a fearsome fighter in the war on flab.

(For those who missed the TIME article, here’s the link http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1914857,00.html . And the link to the Cooper Institute response: http://blog.standupandeat.org/post/2009/08/Theree28099s-No-Myth-About-Exercise.aspx  The CI response links to the press release from the ACSM.)

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