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Time Magazine Says Exercise Doesn’t Help People Lose Weight; They May Be a Little Confused

Strategies and goals

This week’s issue of Time Magazine includes an article called “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin,” which manages to be interesting, informative, and painfully misguided.

Stripping the article down to its main points, essentially author John Cloud says:

  1. Exercise often makes you hungrier
  2. If you eat more calories because you’re hungry from working out, you won’t lose weight
  3. Most people who exercise regularly to lose weight seem to be eating those extra calories, so
  4. Exercise doesn’t help you lose weight. <– Here’s where the error lies

The only problem described with exercise is that it makes a person hungry. Hunger in these cases is a sign that the body is going to burn some fat if you don’t eat some calories soon, so Cloud implies you should give up on the exercise. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just let the fat burn? Yes, this is hard, but if it weren’t, it wouldn’t require willpower, which is what this site is here to help you build.

Cloud also falls into the same two traps as a lot of people who have read about the research that suggests strongly that we have a limited ability to exert self-control. First, he fails to take into account the other research that draws a clear connection between using willpower and strengthening it. That is, he knows about the short-term exhaustion but not about the long-term strengthening.

The other point he misses is that it’s possible to make good choices (that is, use willpower) without using up any of our self-control reserves. Our limitations on self-control appear to have to do with struggling with ourselves, not with simply making good choices. Many of the strategies on this site point to ways we can use willpower without having to fight ourselves over it.

So sure, if you go work out and spend 300 calories, then go eat 500 calories as a “reward” (actually a penalty, if you think about the food’s impact on happiness overall), you won’t lose weight, and may in fact gain it. But it’s still true that weight loss is mainly a question of using more calories than you take in, which means that it’s essential to develop good eating habits and that exercise can help a lot as long as it doesn’t disrupt those habits.

The thing that bothers me most about this article is that I imagine people will read it and then give up, figuring there’s no way for them to win–but I hope I’m wrong. I hope people will read the article, ignore the confused claims about willpower giving out, and understand that to lose weight we just need to make sure we don’t binge on food after workouts. It’s not rocket science, surely. And it’s no surprise the key is self-motivation. Self-motivation turns out to be the key to a lot of things.



  1. fathead  •  Aug 18, 2009 @8:16 am

    Read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. Nobody has the willpower to starve themselves thin. Eat Fat and protein. Forget the carbs. You won’t be hungry. You will lose fat. Exercise may actually be optional.

  2. Luc  •  Aug 18, 2009 @9:20 am

    Thanks for the book recommendation; I’ll look for it.

    Generally speaking, I’ve never read anything that seriously controverts the idea that to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in, although perhaps Mr. Taubes’ book makes a run at that issue. In theory you could lose weight by just eating fewer calories, but it seems like leaving out exercise makes it unnecessarily hard because exercise not only burns calories directly, but it boosts your metabolism to make you burn more calories (not to mention its other benefits). Losing weight without exercising should in theory be very difficult, and general experience seems to bear this out–as long as we count energetic physical activity of any kind as “exercise.” It’s definitely not necessary to join a gym or go running.

    There’s a big difference between feeling hungry and starving. I think this is one of the problems: people feel a little hungry and go into panic mode because on a gut level, they think they need food because of it. In fact, eating a balanced diet on a regular schedule and getting modestly fewer calories per day than expended is perfectly healthy even though it’s possible to feel hungry sometimes in that situation.

    Getting lots of exercise, watching what I eat, and feeling a little bit hungry from time to time has lost me more than 40 pounds so far, so I put a lot of faith in that approach.

    I agree that keeping carbs in check is a good way to help keep calories down, but I’m not so sure about the idea of cranking up the fat and protein beyond a certain point. There appears to be scientific evidence to support the conclusion that this kind of diet can be a major factor in heart disease, and it appears that Robert Atkins of Atkins Diet fame actually had serious heart disease by the time of his death (although it appears too that, contrary to Internet rumors, his death was not caused by a heart attack. According to medical records, he had at least one heart attack earlier, but survived it).

  3. jmb  •  Aug 19, 2009 @7:43 pm

    When you exercise you increase you basic metabolic rate and the good thing is that it stays elevated for some hours after the fact.

    I think this article may convince only those people who were reluctant to follow an exercise routine anyway. Let’s hope so. Just as the articles which say 90% of the people who lose weight put it all back on eventually make those whose motivation is halfhearted say, why bother.

  4. Kaizan  •  Aug 20, 2009 @4:18 am

    I don’t know if exercise helps weight loss. Like you say Luc, it makes sense that weight loss relies on burning off more than you put in.

    But exercise has many more benefits than just weight loss.

    It wards off low moods, it’s good for your bones, it helps with sore joints, it helps cardiovascular function.

    In other words, exercise is about more than just weight loss!

  5. Luc  •  Aug 20, 2009 @9:23 am

    JMB, that’s an encouraging thought, that people who care about their health aren’t likely to be put off exercise by just a single article. I certainly hope not!

    Kaizan, I’m glad you added that point. I knew exercise had side benefits, but I’m only just now learning about some of them, reading the book Brain Rules by John Medina, where he talks about substantial evidence for benefits like greatly improved mental ability and extending lifespan by significant amounts. Oh, not to mention: exercise has outperformed drugs in clinical trials to combat depression and anxiety. I’ll write up what I’ve learned on the subject when I’ve gotten through all the information, but it’s pretty amazing, and should be encouraging even to people who are trying to lose weight but falling short, as long as they’re getting exercise.

  6. Luc  •  Aug 21, 2009 @9:42 pm

    A couple of letters appeared in Time in response to the article. One of them particularly spoke for me, saying:

    Re “The Myth About Exercise” [Aug. 17]: I must take issue with some of the points portrayed as fact. Numerous studies have shown that exercise is indeed central to an effective weight-loss program. The key concept is a simple equation of energy balance: calories expended throughout the day must exceed calories consumed as food. And contrary to the data selected for your article, studies have shown that most exercisers are not uncontrollably hungry after a workout. We strongly encourage reporting that portrays both sides of an issue so readers can decide for themselves–instead of being led down a potentially harmful path. James Pivarnik, President American College of Sports Medicine INDIANAPOLIS

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