Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why Exercise Still Matters

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I was livid Tuesday while reading an article in TIME magazine titled "The Myth about Exercise" by John Cloud. I know that not many people probably care as much as I do about this but I would like to post a rebuttal to this article which I will also be sending to TIME magazine as a formal complaint. If you would like to read the full article to see that I'm not exaggerating its faults, you may do so here.

I've always considered TIME to be a reputable magazine and was truly shocked that they published such irresponsible journalism. I heard about this article through Healthy Tipping Point, a blog I read regularly, while I was on vacation. I was actually quite happy when I returned to work to find that someone had left the issue on my desk with the article in question as the cover story. I was automatically annoyed and intrigued by this cover.

It only took me one glance to understand what this article was really about. Next to a picture of a woman using a sugared donut as a stability ball, the caption read: "Pain - and then gain Whether because exercise makes us hungry or because we want to reward ourselves, many people eat more (and eat worse) after going to the gym." So...this article is about finding something else to blame other than a person’s own eating choices for their unhappiness with their weight. But, still, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and read the entire article. I had to take several breaks to make it all the way to the end, but I did.

This is not a tirade without facts or reason. This isn't a personal vendetta or grudge that I am holding. There are several statements in this article that are very misleading and some that are completely untrue. Even the way it is titled and described is misleading. Americans will see the title, be excited that they can blame exercise for their weight and go on without reading between the lines.

Many people will not be able to see the inconsistency in the studies Cloud used for his research. He used two studies that dealt with how the amount of time one exercises affected their weight. One study was done with women and the other was conducted with children. How are those studies even comparable?? Within the woman's study, they were only given 6 months! 6 months is not enough time to study healthy, attainable and maintainable weight loss! Not to mention that exercise and diet affects each and every person differently; this is why every diet and/or exercise program should be tailored to each person. And I'm curious as to whether these 464 women were all the same height and weight with the same amount of body fat and no diseases or conditions that may affect weight or metabolism, which is the only way this study could be credible.

Another point Cloud makes in the article is that "self control is like a muscle: it weakens each day after you use it." I don't know how else to say it other than this: he is wrong. That is not true. A muscle does not weaken after each use. It grows tired but then grows stronger. Cloud made a completely incorrect analogy no matter which way you spin it. This makes Cloud even less credible.

Cloud defines exercise as time spent in the gym and nothing else. Taking the stairs, going for a short walk on a lunch break or even carrying in the groceries are all forms of exercise. When trying to lose weight, these things are actually recommended and fitting these and similar physical activities wherever possible can really help. I don't know where Cloud acquired the idea that exercise only happens in the gym, but that simply is not true. "Physical exercise is any bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health." (Wikipedia) Cloud’s definition of exercise skews the entire article because every time he refers to "exercise" he is referring to weight lifting, running 5 miles or killing yourself on the elliptical. It is quite possible to lose pounds and maintain a healthy weight without ever doing any of these things. A stay-at-home mom (or dad!) who spends all day chasing their children around gets plenty of exercise without ever joining a gym or doing a push-up. These different forms of physical activity should be considered. Cloud’s narrow definition of exercise leads to the inaccuracy of his argument.

Another problem with the suggestion that "exercise won't make you thin" is that exercise is vastly recommended for a healthy lifestyle, EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT OVERWEIGHT. Losing weight is about becoming a healthier person and making a lifestyle change, not just about those 30 pounds. Exercise has numerous health benefits, including, but not at all limited to, long- and short- term disease prevention, less likely to suffer injuries from minor accidents, extended life span, younger and tighter looking skin and even stronger bones. Cloud alludes that exercise is at fault for the extra pounds, silently suggesting that those trying to lose weight should cut exercise out. Instead of learning to channel cravings into something healthier, these people will loose out on all of the great benefits that come from exercise.

Cloud explains his exercise regimen as something he has "done for years." The body's muscles have memory. They get used to doing activities. If Cloud runs 5.5 miles every week, his body will learn how to run these 5.5 miles. These miles will still be beneficial becuase Cloud is raising his heartrate but he will not burn as many calories because he doesn't have to put as much effort into it. Cloud's muscles are running on auto-pilot. In order to keep all the muscles in engaged, one needs to switch up a routine, surprising the different muscle groups with activity, to always challenge the body. This could be a reason Cloud has found himself in a rut.

Cloud, and probably more people than I realize, have a skewed vision of a normal and healthy diet. A reward system where you "reward" yourself with food every time you do something good is setting yourself up to fail. The rewards will more than foil the efforts of the good deeds. Patting yourself on the back for burning 300 calories on the treadmill by eating a 360 calorie muffin, as is featured in the article, is not a logical thing to do. You become 60 calories worse off. Instead of just taking the exercise away from this equation, the muffin should be the thing to go.

Cloud’s description of “compensation” is one of the main problems with this article. “Whether because exercise makes them hungry or because they wanted to reward themselves (or both), most of the women who exercised ate more than they did before they started [exercising].” Compensation is blaming exercise for what a person eats afterward. A "post-exercise reward" Cloud calls it. Yes, exercise can make you hungry, but that doesn't mean you have to you have to eat "perfectly salted, golden brown french fries after a hard trip to the gym." Or go "stopping at Starbucks for muffins afterward." How is this exercises' fault?? Cloud is blame-throwing. Being healthy isn't something you do part-time. You have to make good decisions every, single day. And yes, no one is perfect - an occasional treat or slip-up will not ruin everything. But eating a “reward” after every workout is not occasional. How can exercise even be considered beneficial if this is the approach? I get hungry after a workout as well...but I grab baby carrots or a glass of milk. Almonds or an apple. It's YOUR choice to eat whatever you like after working out. But it's not the exercise that made you gain a pound. It's the act of choosing french fries instead of something healthier.

"But while physical activity is crucial for good health, it doesn't melt away the pounds - in fact, it can add them." The negative outlook Cloud is placing on exercise does not go away just because he says one good thing about it. It's like saying "no offense", and then saying something offensive. Saying "no offense" beforehand doesn't make the offensive statement any less offensive. Saying that exercise is crucial for a healthy lifestyle and then bashing it and blaming all your weight woes on it for 5 pages does not make it look better. It simply creates the outlook that Americans would be better off only watching what they ate without any exercise. Which is definitely not the message the "overweight Americans" Cloud is speaking to need to hear.

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