Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sensationalistic Journalism Needs to be Exorcised (not a typo)

"Exercise won't make you lose weight," claims the blurb on the cover. The title: "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin". A few paragraphs in, the author provides this quote: "In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless." In the last paragraph, the author himself boldly proclaims, "[B]e warned: fiery spurts of viorous exercise could lead to weight gain."

Deep breaths.

If you haven't already figured it out, I'm talking about an article in the recent issue of Time, sold with the scandalous phrase "The Myth About Exercise" as the cover headline. I don't subscribe, and I'm happy to report that I didn't spend money on this issue (I stole my roommate's issue). The bad news is that this cover certainly did get peoples' attention; chances are that they sold a ton of issues at the newsstands. People all over the internet are talking about the article. The worst news is that the article is, ultimately, garbage.

There are so many problems with this article that I don't know where to start, and I'm certainly not going to have time (or patience) to address it all. Is the science correct? Surely, but that's not where the problems lie. What frustrates me are the implied conclusions of the article and what misconceptions a great deal of the readership will walk away with.

Minor detour: I'm absolutely flummoxed with paragraph two, where the author claims that he has never been overweight (other than a particular two-year exception) but then confesses that he has gut fat that hangs over his belt when he sits. (Huh?)

Moving on. Apparently we need a six-page article to tell us that we need to watch what we eat whether or not we exercise. True, some people do need to be told that; however, the article never really says that in plain language. Where would be the story in that? Instead, it attacks exercise as a tool for weight loss right and left, speckling in a "but exercise is good for you" here and there, and, ultimately, never gives a solution beyond the general recommendation to watch what you eat.

Again, I can't resist reminding you of that parting shot: "[F]iery spurts of viorous exercise could lead to weight gain." Are you kidding me?

Part of the article addresses "compensatory eating", which is a fancy way of saying that we get hungry after exercise and that leads some people to eat more than they burned. Could the author be bothered to mention little details like how one can, if one is paying attention, refuel from a 2,000 calorie ride or hike with a mere 500 calorie meal or even a 300 calorie run with a 100 calorie snack? Might the author mention how a person who would figuratively die on a 1300 calorie per day diet just might be more able to sustain an 1800 calorie per day diet with exercise? (No, not everyone does better this way, but many of us do.)

Possibly the most egregious tidbit follows: "[S]elf-control is like a muscle: it weakens each day after you use it." Um. Funny. A muscle may weaken the day after it is used, but won't it strengthen after that? Nah, let's not mess with a perfectly awful analogy by bringing reality into the picture.

The article mentions that people are simply not designed to easily avoid eating enough calories to make up for those burned in exercise. Funny how it doesn't mention that people are simply not designed to easily avoid eating enough calories to live. Cutting calories goes against what our bodies demand. Period. It doesn't matter whether or not we exercise; the body wants to maintain equilibrium - or, better yet - save some extra fat for a rainy day. No matter what we do, we have to fight our against our body's survival messages if we want to lose weight. Period.

Here's what angers me most about this article: Imagine the couch potato whose heaviest exercise is climbing a flight of stairs when the elevator is broken. He or she picks up the article and gets what out of it? Yep. He thinks to himself, "Well, that settles it. There's no reason to exercise! Pass me the remote control."

Ten, nine, eight..... Deep breath.

Look, you want to hear why people should turn to exercise for weight loss before cutting calories alone? Because exercise can become a lifestyle. It's healthful and has benefits beyond weight change. We all know about the dangers of yo-yo dieting, but no one has ever warned against the dangers of yo-yo exercising. I don't need to explain why, do I?

Bottom line: Why do doctors want us to lose weight? To be healthier. What would they rather have: An active and healthier moderately overweight person or an inactive and unhealthy person at any weight?

Ah, forget what doctors want. What do you want?
ADDENDUM: Runner's World has an excellent response to the Time article here. (Though it doesn't have nearly enough facepalm.)


elwing said...

Unfortunately, what we (and doctors) want doesn't help when it comes to insurance or risk management. If we fall into the "overweight" or "obese" BMI categories, we're screwed, no matter how healthy we are. It is possible to be overweight and healthy - you do it, I do it, many other people do it. But since our BMIs aren't "right", we're ostracized....

Karen said...

True enough. But here's the point I perhaps failed to make more strongly: If you attempt to lose weight by dieting alone, you may or may not lose weight and that's that (plus some possible damage to your health).

But, on the other hand, if you attempt to lose weight through diet and exercise, you may or may not lose weight but - either way - have made yourself healthier through exercise.

No, insurance companies don't get that, but since when have they cared about our health and longevity? ;)

Cidtalk said...

Once again, you said it perfectly for the rest of us.