In Defense of Exercise - response to Time magazine article
August 13, 2009
Recently, Time magazine featured a cover article titled “The Myth About Exercise.” Within days everyone I knew was asking me about this article. By the end of this article, you’ll enjoy much-needed clarity on a subject that wasn’t really confusing to most people until flawed journalism made it that way.
My points will have full impact if you read the original article so here is the link:
Strap yourselves in. This is about how to think about exercise – something you don’t hear enough about but in my opinion is the real secret to long-term success. This is the main problem with the article – a dysfunctional attitude about exercise that leads to misinterpretation of research studies.
Here are my main points:
1. The author’s bias is evident and leads to incorrect conclusions from research studies (and additionally, some of the studies were poorly designed)
2. The article completely misses the point of exercise – as so many people often do
3. The real source of our world-wide obesity problem is ignored in favor of “smearing” exercise
4. There is a clear, nearly obvious, outcome from the research that the article unfortunately missed. Or was too scared to print.
First, a subtitle for the Time article could easily be “The Myth of Journalistic Objectivity.” One of the tenets of journalism is its objectivity, yet the author has a bias so powerful that it is impossible for it not to affect his conclusions. The article is riddled with references to how much he hates exercise. You’ll find him mentioning “working like a farm animal” with a personal trainer, throwing in terms like “abuse,” “hateful,” “grueling,” “wretched,” just to add some color and flair. At least we can compliment him for a complete lack of subtlety with his bias. Okay, Mr. Cloud, we get it! You don’t like exercise. With a weak premise, the best way to build support for your position is to play to emotions.
Were the bias in this article limited only to providing colorful language, it would be less bothersome. But, it unfortunately affects his conclusions from the various research studies he quotes throughout. Shockingly, in the article we learn that there are studies – real, scientific studies – that prove that exercise increases appetite!
Um, was this point unclear to anyone or inconclusive enough to warrant research?
At one point, he mentions that “I get hungry after exercise, so I often eat more on the days I workout than on the days I don’t.” Exactly! And your car uses more gas on days you drive than on days you don’t.
Precisely what “ah-ha” moment are we supposed to have in response to this obvious information?
(As an aside, I believe none of us are free from some degree of bias – myself included – and that true objectivity is a myth. We are all a mixture of our experiences, values, and beliefs and efforts to completely excise them from our lives results in a lessening of our ability to reason. The best we can hope for is to try and minimize bias, do our homework, and grow.)
The study which seems to be the fuel for his premise of the article is so flawed that it is of questionable usefulness (I did manage to find a more useful, closer-to-the-data conclusion – you’ll find it a bit later on.)
A large group of overweight women were broken into four groups – three of whom exercised for varying lengths with a personal trainer, and one of whom was asked to maintain their normal activity patterns. The kicker? They were not asked to change their dietary habits! All the groups lost weight, but no one group lost a significantly larger amount of weight than any other. And the conclusion was that exercise did not lead to a statistically significant change in weight loss. The only thing clear is that just because research is done doesn’t mean it gives us useful conclusions.
And to close the first point: I find it interesting that Mr. Cloud solicited not one comment from his own (or some other) personal trainer or other fitness professional. I suppose it was easier to call researchers in labs all over the country than get up and go find some people working in the trenches.
Next, this article completely misses the point of exercise. It promotes some of the most misguided misconceptions about exercise that keep people from living their best. Specifically, the article reiterates the concepts that:
· Exercise helps you lose weight
· Exercise decreases risk of heart disease
· Exercise prevents cognitive decline
· Regular exercisers have less back pain
· Exercise is a “sweaty, exhausting, hunger-producing” burst of activity
After reading this list, even I don’t want to exercise anymore. Boring. What a dull list. Given this approach, there is simply no compelling reason to exercise. It’s all negative, negative, negative. Many people think like this and it’s the wrong approach. What if I told you that you should go to college so you don’t have to be ignorant, work a tiring, dreary job for little pay, don’t have to drive a clunker car and wear old, dingy clothes? Even if it’s true, does all the negative language in this description sound positive and motivating?
Exercise isn’t about avoiding things it’s about doing things. It’s about becoming more capable. I’ve written about this exhaustively in blogs (with the previous post here, in fact) and online forums and I feel this is the one essential mindset shift that is crucial for long-term health.
Physical activity isn’t supposed to prevent you from having a horrible life; it allows you to fully participate in your own life!
The article further points out that exercise – such as the author negatively defines the experience – may not even be necessary. A study showing kids who exercised vigorously were just as likely to be at a normal weight as kids who were active at lower levels more frequently throughout the day. I’ll concede that point.
But what’s the real problem here, exercise? No, it’s that both the exercising kids and the daily-activity kids get told to stop fidgeting, sit still, grow-up and get real jobs and stop playing so much. So they go out and get journalism degrees, sit still for 23 hours a day, eat crappy food, then grunt and sweat their way through one hour of grueling exercise a day to try and balance the scales. That’s asking an awful lot of exercise.
Third, the article drops hints at the real problem with obesity, but the dots are never connected for you. The real source of the obesity problem is not that “exercise does not help you lose weight.”
Exercise is powerless against poor nutrition habits.
You get hints of this in the article, but nothing more. The article references the “lip-licking anticipation of perfectly salted, golden-brown French fries after a hard trip to the gym.” Another reference is to someone who does a light workout and then grabs a massive coffee shop muffin after the workout.
I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, some have lost a lot of weight while following my exercise programs, and some of them haven’t. Did I give them different programs? Did I treat one client better than the other by withholding some sure-fire exercise strategies from one and not the other? Of course not!
The main difference between results and frustration is in one’s ability/willingness to end their love affair with junk food. Ladies, if you fantasize about a threesome with Ben & Jerry, no trainer or exercise program is likely going to get you very far. This romanticized, weak-kneed reaction to stuff that barely qualifies as food is the real problem…and this leads directly to the fairly obvious conclusions from the research that the author (and unfortunately many of the researchers) missed.
The correct conclusion from most of the studies is to note the overpowering effect that junk food has on our metabolism, health, and minds. And to be clear, I don’t blame the individual for having difficulty staying away from it. Recall that the main study the author cites to form his premise featured already overweight women who made no changes to their dietary habits.
Let’s see…we all eat several times per day and maybe exercise 2-4 days per week. And we know that in this case, the women clearly were already living a lifestyle that led them to become overweight so it’s not a huge leap to assume their nutrition habits were a teensy bit off. You just cannot conclude (if you are a reality-based individual) from this study that exercise is worthless in weight loss. What if your car had no tires, but I made the engine run better and got it in tip-top shape? Your car still wouldn’t go anywhere. Do I conclude the engine work has no value?
Although all of our choices for food are up to us, I don’t blame the individual for having difficulty in staying away from junk foods. You can find the truth if you look for it in books like “Beating the Food Giants,” by Paul Stitt, “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think,” by Brian Wansink, and more recently, “The End of Overeating” by David Kessler.
The powerful chemistry – and the marketing – that is put to work on us through junk foods by the corporations who are not necessarily setting out to make bad foods, but are most definitely setting out to increase profits, has us consuming more and more empty food. If they make satisfying, nutritious food, we’ll eat less of it and they’ll have lower profits.
If you strip away the nutritive value of food and you add the taste sensations of fat and sugar, and then add the “emotional gloss,” as Dr. Kessler says, of comfort foods that we ingrain in ourselves by soothing every skinned knee with an ice cream cone as kids, then we find ourselves in the situation we’re in now: a world where despite “trying everything,” people can’t lose weight.
It’s no coincidence that the timeline of our massive obesity problem flows right alongside our major industrial advances and the advent of large-scale food processing. Our brain and body chemistry is powerless against the “engineered addictiveness” of junk food, and no amount of exercise can undo the “sins” of eating.
We’ve been “exercising” forever as we’ve needed to hunt and avoid prey to stay alive for millennia. Modern living has engineered the need for movement out of our day-to-day lives so the need to reinsert it is self-evident. Whether it is through challenging chores or full-on exercise, the choice is yours. But there is a real myth exposed from the information in the article: And that is the myth that “there is no such thing as bad food.” The truth can hurt. And in this case to say so would incur the wrath of the big food companies and the mouthpieces they’ve brainwashed. But you can’t sue the makers of “exercise” so it’s a safe target.
But one need not even think deeply about this to see the truth.
The cover of the issue of Time featuring this article really does say it all. It shows a woman on a treadmill eyeing a giant cupcake with green icing and sprinkles.
Is the problem with exercise or with the food?