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« Moviegoing: "Eastern Promises" | Main | Mystery Quote for the Day »

September 25, 2007

Exercise and Weight

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Gary Taubes discloses an unnerving fact about exercise and weight control. (Link thanks to Arts and Letters Daily.) So far as they show anything, the studies that have been done on the topic suggest that exercise -- whatever its other virtues -- does nothing to control weight. For most people, the harder they exercise the more they'll eat. Exercisers may wind up with a toned body, they may enjoy peace and relaxation, they may get a kick out of being active for its own sake. But few of them will lose weight.

My personal experience only semi-confirms Taubes' argument. For example: When he was his late 40s, my dad was told by doctors that he had only a few years to live unless he reformed his sedentary, beer-guzzling ways. Scared into long-overdue action, Dad took up jogging. When he first started up, he could barely walk a quarter of a mile. But within a couple of years he was jogging a mile and a half a day and had lost 25 pounds. He also cut 'way back on the beer, which was no doubt a big factor in the weight-loss. But did he drink less beer because he'd resolved to live more healthily, or because (thanks to jogging) he no longer needed to?

In my own case, as a car-free Manhattanite who prefers to avoid cabs and public transportation, I spend around six hours a week walking. When I moved for a summer to Los Angeles, where walking opportunities are hard to come by, I put on ten pounds. Once I was back in Manhattan and once again walking nearly everywhere, the ten pounds came right off.

So, in my book anyway, activity does tend to equal weight loss -- or at least a little weight loss. Or at least contributes to a little weight loss. Still, I take Taubes' larger point, which is that the health-and-eating-and-exercise industry has probably done more to mislead us than to enlighten us. In this essay for the New York Times, Michael Pollan goes even farther; he argues that the very existence of a nutrition-tips industry has made us fatter.

Long ago, after I wrote something about health and eating here at the blog, I enjoyed an email exchange with a doctor who had read the posting. The point he wanted to stress to me was that medical people don't know nearly enough to be giving us the kind of -- and the volume of -- specific eating-and-exercise instructions that they and their journalistic p-r people do.

He was really indignant about the way the health-tips industry is forever coming up with new discoveries and new regimens. ("Green Tea For Your Joints," etc.) Are eggs bad for you? Or was that last week? "Maybe in ten or twenty years they'll know enough to be handing out lots of advice," he wrote me. "But not now. At the moment they really don't know nearly as much as they claim to." For one important thing, general rules can only go so far; a lot depends on the specifics of your particular body. In his view, all the health-tips industry was managing to accomplish was to make us neurotic.

I asked him what handful of general health-tip rules medicine really was certain of. His response was blunt and simple. It boils down to: Don't smoke; don't get too horrendously fat; prefer fresh to packaged foods; avoid self-destructive behaviors of the drug-addiction and alcoholism kind; take your carcass out for a walk three or four times a week; and don't forget to enjoy life. Hey, that's easy enough to follow.

As for myself, I've been trying out the "Shangri-La Diet" for the last couple of weeks. I certainly wouldn't mind losing about 15 pounds ... Some people have had luck with it ... Why not?

It's a very bizarre-seeming diet, yet so far I've lost three pounds. Since it has been a snap to follow, I'll probably be keeping at it for a while longer. It's based on a hunch (by a Berkeley psychology prof, Seth Roberts) that what people trying to lose weight really struggle with is their "set point" -- the weight at which the body is most comfortable, and to which it will do everything in its power to return. Do battle with your set point and you're certain to lose; at some point, your willpower will simply run out.

Roberts' hunch was that a better way to attack the problem would be to change the set point, and that a way to accomplish that might be to ingest some flavorless calories in between meals. Break the link the body has made between flavor and calories, and the set-point can be re-drawn.

Although Roberts spins his theory out in a variety of interesting ways in his book, what has surprised me most after a couple of weeks on the diet is how effective it is at curbing appetite. I enjoy food as much as ever; I just want less of it.

The pleasing thing is that this "wanting less" isn't a function of willpower. (Because who has any willpower to spare?) I simply feel full and satisfied much sooner than I usually do. And because I don't feel like another forkful, I don't take it. Hallelujah: There's no self-denial involved.

One small example: The other day I treated myself to an ice-cream cone. I enjoyed it thoroughly -- peppermint chocolate chip never fails to please. Halfway through the single-scoop cone, though, I suddenly felt satisfied. I looked at what remained of my yummy cone and I didn't feel like finishing it. I just didn't want any more ice cream -- a very different experience than the usual "God, I'd love more but I know I shouldn't." I'd had my pleasure and the moment was over. So I threw the rest of it away.

Semi-related: I wrote about Nina Planck's good book "Real Food."

Best,

Michael

UPDATE: Speaking of nonneurotic health tips ... I blogged enthusiastically about Harvey Simons' "The No-Sweat Exercise Plan," and David Chute got a lot out of Walter Willetts' "Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy." Lester Hunt picked up some useful tips from Ellie Krieger's "Small Changes, Big Results."

posted by Michael at September 25, 2007




Comments

How strange. Nothing BUT excercise has ever worked for me. A book I was given by a Harvard Medical School doc says that while excercise itself doesn't burn many calories, the increase in muscle mass that results effects your metabolism; more muscle burns more calories. And who are you to argue with Harvard?

Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter Willett and P.J. Skerrett

Posted by: David C on September 25, 2007 4:29 PM



For most people, the harder they exercise the more they'll eat.

Not for me. I find that the more I exercise, especially aerobic exercise such as treadmill running, the less I want to eat.

My guess is that some people use exercise as an excuse to overeat: "I'll spend ten minutes on the stationary cycle tomorrow, so it's okay if I have this hot fudge sundae today."

Posted by: Peter on September 25, 2007 4:45 PM



It does seem a little weird, doesn't it? But maybe we're outliers. I'd hate to think about what would become of me physically if I weren't doing the walking and yoga. But maybe I'd weigh just the same, however droopily and saggily.

Here's another healthtips by a Harvard guy book you might enjoy. Anything that makes the whole eating-and-exercising thing less neurotic than it usually is is ok by me.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 25, 2007 4:53 PM



Gina Kolata, author of Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth About Exercise and Fitness, said in an interview:

"The too-good-to-be-true myth is one that I had believed. I had thought, and so did many people, that if you build muscle that muscle will burn more calories and fat and therefore throughout the day, even if you do nothing, even if you just sit still, you will automatically be burning more calories, your metabolism will be higher. Unfortunately, that's not true. I asked an exercise physiologist to do a calculation for me. If a man goes to a gym and lifts weights seriously for four months he might build about four pounds of muscle, which is a lot; a woman would build much less. That four pounds of muscle would burn an extra 24 calories a day. That's like a bite of a cookie."

Posted by: Dave Lull on September 25, 2007 5:45 PM



There's no way around the fact that losing weight involves hunger -- and the will to bear it over time.

At present I lack the will. But having done it before I can attest that losing weight has little to do with a strenuous or non-strenuous regimen. You have to get into the rhythm of two modest meals a day and stick to it, through the hunger pangs, for as long as it takes to lose the excess. No way around that reality. And yes, the weight will come back.

Posted by: ricpic on September 25, 2007 5:55 PM



I've had exactly the same experience with the Shangri-La diet - lost a few pounds in 3 weeks. It absolutely suppresses appetite and it's about as easy to follow as you could ask. We'll see what the long term effects of it are.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on September 25, 2007 8:18 PM



I dropped more than 50 pounds about a decade ago. It's mostly stayed off (I've gained back less than 10 pounds, mostly at the behest of the saintly Mrs Tall, who thought I looked emaciated at my low point) but it's hard. I combined eating less with pretty vigorous exercise, so I can't give more credit to one or the other. But I find I agree with both Peter's comment above, and with Taubes. That is, exercise makes me both less hungry (i.e. right after I've exercised) and more hungry (i.e. say later in the day, or the day after, I've exercised). It seems like I need to stoke the fire with a little extra, or I'll be left feeling weak and tired. I'm sure this is my body having revenge on me, but it's hard to resist over the long haul.

I think ricpic's point is excellent: habit is about nine-tenths of the battle. But changing eating habits is much easier, I think, when it's contextualized within a broader, life-altering-and-energizing program of 'losing weight and getting fit'.

Posted by: mr tall on September 26, 2007 1:09 AM



I admit that I don't exercise to lose weight: rather to avoid gaining it. I enjoy pottering about on a bicycle after a day sat at a desk, for sure, but I do like to eat my food (I'm in Portugal where it's both good and cheap) so I quite consciously exercise so as to be able to enjoy more food without ballooning up.

Posted by: Tim Worstall on September 26, 2007 5:31 AM



If you build muscle that muscle will burn more calories and fat and therefore throughout the day while working eating plays a major role having six times a day makes your muscles too strong.

Posted by: bodybuilding on September 26, 2007 6:14 AM



I'm definitely a little leaner when I'm running regularly. When I'm in the midst of a writing project or other commitments and I blow off my evening runs, the spare tire starts to return.

Fortunately I've never had to struggle seriously with weight. I just don't like eating. I can appreciate the taste of food once in a while. But the whole cycle - feel dizzy and tired because you need calories, spend a bunch of money and time preparing and eating a meal, and then feel groggy and sleepy while you digest it - it's such a hassle to go through three times a day, isn't it? Bring on the food-pills, I say!

Posted by: Nate on September 26, 2007 6:40 AM



Yeah, i too agree that being hunger doesn't helps in losing weight. The best solution is to go for gym and do regular exercise. I have also started doing regular exercise.

Posted by: Gym on September 26, 2007 7:55 AM



I've personally found that exercise has much more impact on the way I look than on how much I weigh.

I'm one of those people who find the New Year a good time to kick start a health routine. In 2006, I vowed to go to the gym for an hour every day - 3 days of cardio, 3 days of weights, 1 day off. In conjunction, I dieted religiously. This worked great for 3 months when I lost 15-20 pounds.

Unfortunately, the pace was too much. Between my wife getting pregnant and other life strains, I fell off the wagon. I gained all the weight back plus an additional 5-10 pounds as a nice kick in the teeth.

In 2007, I vowed to get to the gym when I felt like it and to lose ONLY 1 pound per month. The only discipline I promised I would do is weigh myself daily. This has been a complete breeze. I never feel like I am rationing myself and if I feel like I am not still reaching my goal, it only takes me a few days of activity and watching my food intake to get myself back on track. 9 months in, I am right where I want to be.

Instead of feeling like I am battling myself on the weight question, I feel much more like I am managing it toward the right direction. I tend to think that there is a set point based on lifestyle and stage of life and that you can only change that set point very slowly over the course of months.

This has also taught me a good lesson about setting goals. Our society, for good or ill, encourages us to set very ambitious goals and to "shoot the moon". This is all very well and good for the 2% of overachievers out there, but for the vast majority of people overall happiness would be achieved by setting very modest goals and taking the time to consistently achieve those incremental changes.

Posted by: James Dudek on September 26, 2007 9:15 AM



I have another exercise induced weight loss anecdote. My mother's sister is chubby. She's been chubby her entire life except for one time. That was after she had her two boys. Apparently, they were *hell-raisers* and she was always running after them like mad. My mother says her sister became thin as a rail. But as her boys grew up and quietened down, she gradually gained weight again and returned to her former plump state.

Posted by: blue on September 26, 2007 10:32 AM



The best dieting and health advice I've found in many years of looking is in Ellie Krieger's book, Small Changes, Big Results:

http://www.elliekrieger.com/book.cfm

Posted by: Lester Hunt on September 26, 2007 12:29 PM



I'm no scientist, so my observations are entirely anecdotal.

People who grow up actually enjoying athletics and exercise usually are fit and, if not thin, not overweight. I grew up in a family that played sports year round. We enjoyed it.

People who view athletics and exercise as a chore will be unfit and fat, and they will be obsessed with the push/pull world of diet and sporadic exercise.

I never think about my weight. When I've gone out with chubby women, I notice that they obsess endlessly about their weight, worry endlessly about that next chocolate brownie and promise endlessly to finally hit the gym. I can barely stand to be around it. On my own, or when I'm involved with a thin woman who invariably shares my view, I exercise when I want to, eat when I want to and barely think about it all. This is even true of Yoga, which I practice because I enjoy it.

These habits are established almost from the cradle and do not change.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 26, 2007 12:32 PM



Fun comments, tales and tips.

Hey, is anyone else as surprised as I am by the fact that no gals have joined in this discussion? Food, exercise, bodies, weight ... You'd think the gals would be all over this one.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 26, 2007 12:43 PM



I can chime in and say exercise has never done anything for my weight, only my stamina and muscle mass. I also have the weird experience/condition that I have NEVER experienced the endorphin rush or euphoria most people claim after exercising, even when I was young and pounded out 100 pushups a day. I always feel vaguely icky during exercise, and it takes up to an hour afterwards to feel normal and not wrung out afterwards. The only exercise that doesn't seem to make me feel bad is walking and hiking (and, back in the day, skateboarding, but then you just use burst energy and coast a lot).

I've always achieved weight loss through dietary changes, and that's it.

Thanks for the book recommendation, I've already ordered my copy.

Posted by: yahmdallah on September 26, 2007 1:07 PM



I'm a girl.

Posted by: blue on September 26, 2007 1:10 PM



Mmmmm . . . Ellie Krieger . . .

Posted by: Bilwick on September 26, 2007 1:17 PM



For some reason, the word 'exercise' seems to turn a lot of women off. I'm not sure why...perhaps images of sweaty jocks in grey sweatsuits comes to mind. I've noticed that if I so much as try to talk about exercise at all, women's eyes glaze over as if I'm comparing the merits of, say, the M-16 rifle and the AK-47.

You know, guy stuff. Now, if you'd titled the post "Exercise, Diet and Weight", I think you'd be seeing a lot more distaff posters.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 26, 2007 4:31 PM



"How strange. Nothing BUT excercise has ever worked for me. A book I was given by a Harvard Medical School doc says that while excercise itself doesn't burn many calories, the increase in muscle mass that results effects your metabolism; more muscle burns more calories. And who are you to argue with Harvard?"

I just finished Gary Taubes (600+ page) book and I think that many of us could argue with Harvard.

A Harvard degree may give someone's proclamation to seem more correct, but the plain fact is that (as the writer's doctor friend stated) there is very little actual SCIENCE behind these proclamations.

Gary does a great job of explaining how most of our authorities (Harvard included) have proffered a theory low fat diet/exercise that has little to do with actual, demonstrated science.

Most of the authorities base their advice on a very simplistic and (most likely) wrong thesis...the calories in/ calories out equation.

Our bodies are very complex organisms and our weight is, most likely, more controlled by complex cellular/hormonal mechanisms than by a simplistic misinterpretation of the first law of thermodynamics.

Our bodies are not controlled by a simple in/out equation.

Our bodies (down to the cellular level) regulate and maintain a certain level of obesity despite our (short term) efforts to reduce calories or increase exercise. Consequently, for many, it is necessary to understand/manipulate the hormonal/metabolic part of the equation...most likely by manipulating levels of insulin within our system.

Posted by: Robert on October 2, 2007 12:28 PM






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