Exercise Makes You Healthy, But Not Thin

I’ve never been especially athletic. I don’t enjoy sports, and I was always the last one to be chosen for teams in gym class. It wasn’t that I was particularly fat or out-of-shape as a child. I was a little chubby, but I was fit from the ballet classes I attended from the age of 5, and I always enjoyed riding my bike. The fact was, given the choice between softball and a novel, the novel won every time. I’m a natural book worm.

One of the things that always bothered me in my struggle with weight loss throughout my teens and twenties was the idea that I had to become an exercise aficionado in order to lose weight. I didn’t want to spend my leisure time participating in sports or sweating in a gym. I value (and enjoy) intellectual accomplishment over athleticism. I’d rather be learning something than running around a track. Did I really have to be a different person to be a normal weight?

I am happy to report that the answer is no.

In my late 20s, I discovered the non-diet approach, also called attuned eating, and I dropped my excess weight without a special exercise program. Since then I’ve learned that studies prove what I experienced first-hand:

  • Exercise is good for health, but has very little impact on weight.
  • You don’t need extreme amounts of sweaty, arduous exercise to be healthy, and in fact pushing your body hard on a regular basis has some health-related downsides. You need a certain minimum, but as you exercise more, there are diminishing returns and ultimately some disadvantages.

Exercise Doesn’t Cause Weight Loss

Last month, Time magazine ran an article entitled “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” that caused a bit of an uproar. The author talked about his personal experience of working “like a farm animal” for an hour in the gym – for years – and yet never losing his excess weight. He is not alone in this this.

The article went on to cite numerous studies finding that people naturally compensate for extremely strenuous exercise by (1) moving less for the rest of the day, and (2) eating more. So in the end, you may not burn more calories by exercising, and you very well may eat more than you would otherwise. Very strenuous exercise can actually leave you fatter than you would be with moderate exercise.

Gary Taubes found the same thing in his extensive and thorough review of the weight loss literature, Good Calories, Bad Calories (see my summary of his findings). Taubes notes that the advice to exercise to lose weight is relatively recent. Until the 1960s, investigators routinely stated that the increase in energy expenditure from moderate exercise was insignificant and easily matched by slight changes in diet. Moreover, natural appetite increases compensate for even large energy expenditures from exercise.

The extra muscle you build from exercise won’t help much, either. From the Time magazine article:

According to calculations published in the journal Obesity Research by a Columbia University team in 2001, a pound of muscle burns approximately six calories a day in a resting body, compared with the two calories that a pound of fat burns. Which means that after you work out hard enough to convert, say, 10 lb. of fat to muscle – a major achievement – you would be able to eat only an extra 40 calories per day, about the amount in a teaspoon of butter, before beginning to gain weight. Good luck with that.

This is not to say there is no benefit to exercise. There are many health benefits – improved heart health, improved mood, improved cognitive ability. But weight loss isn’t one of the benefits of exercise.

Moderate Exercise is Best for Health

The other big myth that needs exploding is the type of exercise you need for health. It’s not what you think.

Short bursts of strenuous exercise such as an hour at the gym several times a week is not what makes you healthiest. What works best is what comes naturally – to move a lot as part of your day. Walk or bike rather than drive, take the stairs rather than the elevator, use your arms by carrying parcels home from the store. You don’t need to be sweating and hurting; you just need to be moving regularly.

The kind of exercise we need is the kind of exercise we evolved getting, what our bodies adapted to over the course of evolution. Our paleolithic ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Hunting involves long walks, short bursts of running, and then carrying heavy carcasses home. Gathering also involves a lot of walking and carrying of heavy bundles. Between times, paleolithic people relaxed, ate, and drew pictures on the walls of their caves.

If you enjoy athletic pastimes, that’s fine – do what you enjoy! But intensive exercise is not necessary for health, and puts a lot of strain on the body. Seems like every season on “The Biggest Loser”, someone goes home with a stress fracture or some other exercise-related injury. That’s a risk for anyone exercising at that level.

Speaking of “The Biggest Loser” – don’t believe everything you see on TV. Past participants have said that the weekly weigh-ins cover time periods much longer than a week, and admitted using diuretics and starvation to win. At least some have regained everything they lost – there are no follow-up statistics to say what percent.

A Low-Cost Alternative to Gym Membership

Here’s a good way to boost your daily movement: Buy one of those little step counters, and make a habit of wearing it. Walking is the best exercise, and studies show that people who use pedometers walk more. Get a good quality one – the cheap ones become inaccurate within months. The Omron HJ-112 Digital Pocket Pedometer is especially good. And then try to walk at least 10,000 steps per day. That’s a good benchmark for heart health.

How many minutes a day do you spend walking? Can you commit to walking more? It won’t help you to lose weight, but it will make you healthier and happier.

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15 Responses to Exercise Makes You Healthy, But Not Thin

  1. avatar Poodooloo says:

    Thanks for posting this Sheryl. It’s an interesting topic.

    In my own personal experience I have found this to be true, to an extent. At my fittest I weighed 62.5kg,more recently (a lot less fit) my weight dropped to 62.5kg again, though this time I wasn’t exercising much – I was just eating less. However, weight is not everything. At my ‘fit’ 62.5kg I had about 15% bodyfat. At my ‘fat’ 62.5kg, it was 25%!! And my fit 62.5kg body looked completely different to my more recent 62.5kg. That’s a huge difference in body composition.

    From a vanity point of view I think I looked far better at my ‘fit’ 62.5kg. But was this healthier? To be honest, for me and my body type, I would say no. I think it is more natural and healthy for me to be closer to 25% body fat. But for some individuals, depending on one’s weight and body type, surely losing some fat and gaining some muscle must have health benefits (even if the difference is not reflected on the scale)?

    While it may well be true that an extra pound of muscle on your body does not burn THAT much more energy than a pound of fat, what about the metabolic effects of exercising daily? Exercising in the morning can increase your metabolic rate for the entire day. So while the presence of the muscle per se may not result in a significant increase in energy expenditure, the fact that you exercise regularly surely does? Also, muscle does have other functions and benefits than simply increasing metabolic rate. Being stronger can be useful!

  2. The two points I was trying to make are (1) exercise does not cause weight loss, and (2) the quality and quantity of exercise that maximizes health (reduces heart disease, prolongs life) is not what most people think.

    The short bursts of intense gym workouts are not the best type of exercise for health, and in fact can cause injury and shorten life by stressing the body. I read somewhere that marathon runners die YOUNGER than comparably fit people who don’t run marathons.

    For maximal health – and again, I’m talking about reducing risk of heart disease and prolonging life – it’s best to exercise (move your body) at lower intensities but throughout the day. Walk LOTS, take the stairs rather than the elevator, walk to the store and then carry your parcels home in your arms. This routine type of movement, if it’s constant throughout the day, provides a greater health benefit than intense gym workouts.

    But again, as I said, if you like running marathons or you enjoy body building, go for it! It’s just not necessary for health, and actually can wear your body out faster.

    – Sheryl

  3. avatar Sara says:

    I agree – I am 28, been exercising consistently since I was 17 or 18, and though my weight yo yos a lot, its pretty much been the same since I was 18 – about 30 lbs overweight. I love to lift weights and I do lots of cardio. I know that it doesn’t help me lose weight, but I have the cholesterol and blood pressure of a very fit person regardless of my weight and I attribute it to lots of working out. Plus, knowing that I can run 6 miles and and very strong just makes me feel good about my body and what it can do instead of always focusing on appearance. I also think the vigorous exercise helps me with my stress and anxiety, and there is nothing like the endorphin rush of pushing myself to the limit when running.

  4. avatar Matt says:

    right on Sista!

    my view has always been that our “workouts” and gym memberships are like a prostetic for the natural actiivty we once had. While certain exercises and workouts can add huge benefits, using a workout for energy expenditure is like playing the piano with an artificial hand.

    That’s why I produce my Web TV show on fitness Independence. It’s all about getting back to that natural activity rather than killing yourself in a gym

  5. avatar Kay says:

    I’ve mentioned this before in various posts, but the best that exercise did for me – and it was a lot! – was to firm me up. I trained for marathons and didn’t lose a pound. But I usually lost a size or two. What I am finding more and more though is that NO exercise is a recipe for disaster. My hunger cues somehow work better if I am more fit.

  6. avatar Mike says:

    Exercise is good and helps me feel confident about myself as I am doing something positive for my overall well being. This in turn helps to reinforce the other positive things that I may be trying to do. When I exercise, I actually tend to eat less. I think thats because I have noticed that I eat unncessarily sometimes out of an anxious feeling or boredom. Exercise kind of takes the edge off for me and allows me to relax.

    I agree that some people see exercise as an excuse to continue unhealthy eating patterns and may try to make up the calories in by running them out. That sounds almost as bad as binging. Eat, and then run yourself half to death to stay thin. Not a good reason for exercise. But it points out once again the need for self examination to find out what it is were trying to do and why. And……..is it helping us or hurting us?

  7. I think that’s a good point – many people view exercise as a way to pay for eating sins. First of all, that makes it into a punishment, which is sad because moving your body should be joyful. Second, it doesn’t work! It’s not possible to exercise enough to compensate for seriously overeating.

    – Sheryl

  8. avatar Cecilia says:

    I agree with Mike, for me exercise helps a lot with losing weight but only because it makes me feel good in several ways: I feel more relaxed, I have a better mood (I notice I feel happier during the day if I exercise in the morning); it boosts my self-esteem and make me feel better about myself. The other advantage is that I am physically tired at night when I go to bed so I can sleep easily and I dont get up to eat. Working in my office for hours on end doesnt help me at all and it is actually very stressful so the exercise helps me a lot in those aspects. Now, I am really heavy so I dont need to do “risky” things to break a sweat and working out in my elliptical or walking outside for 20-30 minutes a day usually does the trick.

    Speaking about Biggest Loser I used to be a fan and I think it inspired me in some ways, I am not afraid of sweating or moving now but it is true that it is totally misleading and you can see a lot of injured participants for doing too much. I also hate the things they say when they get thin like “Now I can start my life”; “I feel it is me finally” so being fat is not being you or you are such a loser you cant have a life because you are fat? That is the main reason I dont watch the show anymore but also last season actually I think they went too far and they lost sooo much weight they didnt look healthy at all, more like corpses walking, if that’s living I prefer to be fat…

  9. Another helpful aspect of exercise that I didn’t think to mention in the original post was that it makes your hunger and satiation cues easier to read. Exercise makes you entire body and mind work better, so this piece also works better. You clearly experience hunger (much less confusion about this), you know what you feel like eating (from a body wisdom perspective, not cravings), and you know when you’ve had enough. I should have mentioned this in the post – I forgot.

    I’ve watched “The Biggest Loser” for several seasons now, but this year it’s annoying me so much I can’t stand it. I yell at the television through the whole thing. I thought it was very funny that the woman who couldn’t exercise because she severely injured a muscle (in itself, appalling – that’s what happens when you torment your body), actually lost more weight than anyone that week – 11 pounds. (Note that the time period was probably much longer than a week – there have been reports that they fudge the time between “weekly” weigh-ins.)

    The other thing that really irritates me about “The Biggest Loser”, as long as I’m ranting about it, is the arrogance of Jillian. She’s got an awfully high opinion of herself – higher than is deserved. She thinks she knows everything, and sometimes she is blatantly wrong – particularly about nutrition. I can’t stand watching her berate and humiliate people until they are sobbing, and then putting her arm around them like she’s their best friend. I think she’s sadistic.

    The eating advice and nutrition information they give on the show is often faulty. Sometimes they know very well it’s faulty, but they are paid to say it. They are very big on product placements – another thing that has me yelling at the TV.

    > I also hate the things they say when they get thin like “Now I can start my life”; “I feel it is me finally” so being fat is not being you or you are such a loser you cant have a life because you are fat? That is the main reason I dont watch the show anymore but also last season actually I think they went too far and they lost sooo much weight they didnt look healthy at all, more like corpses walking, if that’s living I prefer to be fat…

    I totally agree on both counts. The winners last year looked terrible. They’d lost too much weight and it aged them frighteningly. But I keep watching the show, sort of like you can’t look away from a train wreck.

    – Sheryl

  10. Oh – one other rant about “The Biggest Loser”… Last week Bob and Jillian brought the contestants to a restaurant and lectured them about how they had to special order everything to be low fat, and carry their calorie books wherever they go. And they actually said (I couldn’t believe they kept a straight face) that this is what THEY do. BULLPUCKY! No way they do that. They are clearly not carb sensitive. I’m sure neither of them is genetically inclined to gain weight.

  11. avatar Kathie says:

    I totally agree that exercise does NOT make me lose weight. However, what are the METABOLIC ASPECTS resulting from exercise?

    I am a very large person (complete with bad knees), therefore, my doctor has NOT recommended walking for exercise. I know that unfortunately I’ve “earned” the bad knees through abuse of them as a younger person in sports, and carrying excess weight as an adult. In the past, walking was always a major key in my (many) attempts at weight loss. I felt that the exercise was helping my metabolism in conjunction with being careful in the way I ate.

    I do free weights and get in the pool when the weather permits (which is quickly ending!). I do NOT do these to lose weight, but to attempt to raise my metabolism level. Is there any validity to this?

    What other ways would you suggest to ignite a sluggish metabolism? I’d appreciate any insight. Thanks!

    Kathie

    P.S. I’ve never watched “The Biggest Loser”, but it
    sounds as though I’m not missing much!

  12. Hi Kathie,

    There are major health benefits to exercise apart from weight loss or metabolic rate. Even 20-30 minutes of walking a day (I know you just said you can’t walk) sharply reduces your risk of heart disease. It’s also good for your mental functioning and emotional wellbeing – it’s improves depression better than any pill.

    I’d suggest you join a place that has a pool and get exercise that way. In New York, you can join the NYC rec clubs for just $75 a year and get access to any rec center in the city, some of which have beautiful pools. Other cities may not have this, but the Y might have a pool. They also probably give classes in water aerobics. Look into it.

    Generally, keep the focus on health rather than weight loss when it comes to exercise. The benefits are huge.

    – Sheryl

  13. avatar Leigh says:

    “How many minutes a day do you spend walking? Can you commit to walking more? It won’t help you to lose weight, but it will make you healthier and happier.”

    Yes, walking will help you lose weight, or at least can. I’m walking at least 10,000 steps a day, with a brisk (not so fast I’m not enjoying the scenery) walk every morning of 3 to 4 miles and I’ve dropped five pounds in two weeks.

    I’m not, however, then “rewarding” myself with a high calorie treat after the fact. I’m eating when I’m hungry, but am not eating junk.

    Your headline and the Time article both are misleading. People shoving high calorie treats into their mouths after they exercise and therefore not losing weight is not the same as exercise itself being ineffective.

    Yes, the pounding, painful uber-exercising that personal trainers have be expounding isn’t necessarily all that helpful and plays into the need to reward yourself afterwards.

    But a glorious walk on a beautiful morning or a thoughtful, slow, expansive session of stretching, or yoga, or Pilates is reward in itself. It feels good and you feel good afterwards.

    And having an appetite that increases with more exercise doesn’t have to be a problem if we eat food that is good for us. Common sense should tell us that to respond to an hour of walking that burns off a couple hundred calories by eating a muffin with 300 calories is pointless. But eating an orange or an apple can also be a treat.

    Americans have trouble avoiding extremes, it seems.

  14. avatar melissa says:

    i used to watch the biggest looser…and then i began to HATE Jillian Micheals. the last time I watched, one of the contestants was clearly in pain, and had sat down for a breather. Jillian gets in this person’s face, like some marine drill sargent, and begins to literally scream at this individual “GET UP!!!!” I have to say, had that been me, I would have ended up in a law suite, because I would have punched her in the face. NO weight loss program is worth that. I never watched it again. Besides they’re too “diety” and very much into making the contestants feel that they’re fat because they don’t know how to do it, and need professional “trainers” to show them.

  15. avatar Amanda says:

    Absolutely true- tried tested and true. I have exercised my whole life, much like a monkey running, going, trying, etc..it doesnt cause much weight loss, i looked fitter but not thinner.

    It is healthiest for me to say ‘i exercise bc i like looking fit but ALSO and mostly because i like the cognitive effects and knowing that it is helping me extend my life/fix my osteoporosis’ but it doesn’t help lose weight that much in my experience. It is freeing to stop thinking of i need to go to the gym to lose weight….i still have that voice as a habit but i agree with this blog- not much effect.

    One PS–normal eating and a normal body are different from a ‘fit’ body
    NE helps us be normal and peaceful and listen to our desires and eat with our wisdom
    exercise helps us tone our muscles and feel good with the release of seratonin–but i dont feel that are TOO far related (PS it depends what stage of life your in and if you have been sedentary before, that will determine its impact)

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