By Johnny Nguyen
It’s obvious most articles in popular press weave in a degree of sensationalism to sell magazines, and the Time article by staff writer John Cloud is no exception. This is unfortunate, especially if the sensationalism sends the wrong message to a readership already teetering between exercise and sloth, between motivation and excuse. And it also frustrates experts and enthusiasts who must bear witness to twisted facts. But, twisted facts they may be, in the end the twist still contains facts.
There are over a dozen rebuttals to Cloud’s article and they contain fascinating commonalities. Whether deliberately or by mistake, every rebuttal expertly sidesteps the actual bone by pitching information irrelevant to the main contention of the Time article: Exercise and weight loss. Each rebuttal lists the positive effects of exercise on cardiac health, insulin control, disease prevention, and other factors already acknowledged by Cloud in his article. Comically, people recycled Cloud’s assertions for their own rebuttals.
Lost in Translation
Among all these rebuttals and energetic exchanges, the two words that appear to be lost in translation: WEIGHT LOSS.
Unfortunately, the sensationalism forced into Cloud’s article sent the message that exercise does not produce weight loss, when it actually should have stated that exercise does not produce any more weight loss over diet alone – which is the finding in the study referenced (Church, 2009). The author of the study, Dr. Tim Church, explained that those who exercise tend to eat more and move less during the rest of the day, an established phenomenon he calls “compensation.”
So exercise produces some weight loss, but not statistically more significant than that of diet alone. For this reason, it is fair to say that (until further research proves otherwise) exercise itself may not produce the weight loss, but that the weight loss itself might come from diet. Of all the studies correlating exercise and weight loss, none so far has proven that exercise itself produces statistically significant loss of weight, for they all failed to differentiate this loss between exercise and diet (J. Volek, 1999; J. Donnelly, 2003; C. Slentz, 2004; B. Irving, 2008). Additionally, a recent study that includes strict adherence to calorie intake found that weight loss was practically similar among all exercising groups, regardless of duration, frequency and intensity (J. Jakicic, 2005). And this was a two-year study.
Further, a 6-month study published in the JAMA measured weight loss in 4 groups:
1. Controls (no diet, no exercise)
2. Diet only
3. Diet plus exercise
4. Very restricted diet (very low calorie)
The control group experienced little change in weight. The diet-only group had 10.4% loss in weight. The diet-and-exercise group had 10.0% loss in weight. The very restricted diet group had 13.9% loss (L.K. Heilbronn, 2006). The group that dieted and exercised experienced the same weight loss as the group that just dieted.
We ought to look hard at the studies, rather than responding with emotion. Incidentally, Gary Taubes’s heavily researched book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, which extensively references numerous studies with intelligent interpretation, clearly explains in details how it is possible within the laws of thermodynamics to fully experience little to no weight loss in a calorie deficit WITH or without exercise. This book should be required reading before any attempt to rebuttal the concept that exercise may not help with weight loss.
What About Body Composition?
Of course the issue of body composition hasn’t escaped the argument here. Exercise’s effect on the fat-to-muscle ratio is a factor that had served as ammunition against Cloud’s article. Irving and colleague (2008) found that exercise decreases abdominal visceral fat (AVF) greater in people who exercise at a higher intensity than those who did it at a lower intensity and over those who didn’t exercise at all, even though body weight remained the same (not surprisingly, the authors of this study state that the AVF loss differences did NOT reach the level of statistical significance across all groups. Additionally, the authors admitted to incomplete dietary data and were “not able to adequately analyze the impact of reduced caloric intake on the changes in body composition”).
Volek in his study (1999) also found that the group that exercised had more muscles than the group that didn’t, even though weight loss were similar between both groups.
Cloud didn’t mention the positive aspect of exercise and body composition in his Time article, presumably for the purpose of sensationalism or perhaps because of ignorance. But in any case, body composition is not the variable examined here, and scientific studies are a process of seeking out and eliminating variables. Weight loss, thus, is the variable at hand.
But I want to expand on the issue of body composition and the perspectives of its biggest proponents. So, at this point, I’ll venture off the original topic of weight loss.
The Perspective of Aesthetics
Aesthetics cannot be argued effectively on the basis of health because it is defined and dictated by the media culture. If you want to look tone and defined, that’s your business. But fatness has not been proven to be the cause of metabolic diseases (though it’s likely the result). Which leads to the next perspective.
The Perspective of Muscle Metabolism
The argument that increased muscle mass prevents or corrects metabolic derangement assumes that less muscle mass is the etiology of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart diseases. This is false, and to push for more muscle mass as a way to “medicate” metabolic diseases is to continue to ignore and perpetuate an underlying problem.
Perhaps it’s time more of us exploit the overall structure of societal mobility, diet, and other living elements before placing all our bets on a formal exercise program. Consider the Okinawans, Vilcambians, Abkhasians, and the people of the Hunza Valley, who have never seen a health club or a formal workout protocol like HIIT, yet they possess outstanding longevity without chronic illnesses, regardless of body composition. So why then must we use exercise to medicate conditions that shouldn’t exist in the first place? If this is the argument for exercise, then exercise is merely a band aide to a greater problem.
A lack of formal gym exercise does not result in insulin resistance and metabolic diseases.
Though it’s irresponsible for an article to spin the facts for the purpose of magazine sales, it is perhaps even more irresponsible of health and fitness professionals to discredit Cloud without thorough investigation into not just the study he presented but also other relevant studies. Only by further inquiry can we start a more informed dialog rather than merely dismissing something that happens to challenge the status quo. And perhaps this dialog will result in an increased number of people who’ll finally understand that exercise offers health benefits along with improvement in body composition that have nothing to do with the numbers on the scale. And perhaps this will free everyone else from the wishful thinking that exercise makes them lose weight, and they can finally acknowledge the improvement in the way they feel and look with exercise, even if it doesn’t net them a greater total loss of weight. And finally, people may begin to put more thoughts into responsible eating.
For too many years fitness professionals and experts alike have told the public that exercise causes “weight loss,” which only led most people to hang-ups with the number on the scale… and ultimately to a feeling of failure. To rebut the Time magazine article with sidestep verbiage serves only to perpetuate this problem.
By Johnny Nguyen