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.
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.