Why exercise won’t make you thin (and other idiotic tales of mass media reporting)

August 16th, 2009  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  8 Comments


This wasn’t the headline for Time magazine’s recent piece, but it might as well have been.

In an exploration of recent studies that show exercise alone (I’ll come back to this) is not as helpful for weight control as people assume, the usual reductionist conclusions were drawn. (Confidential to article writer: fat cannot become muscle, 800-calorie Starbucks fat/sugar bomb muffin nothwithstanding.)

I’ll leave it to Tom Venuto to dispense the beatdowns, but I wanted to address this obvious point:

“All this helps explain why our herculean exercise over the past 30 years — all the personal trainers, StairMasters and VersaClimbers; all the Pilates classes and yoga retreats and fat camps — hasn’t made us thinner.”

Let’s look at the data shall we? Depending on the age (younger people are more active), nearly half to the majority of people get less than the bare minimum of activity in the US. In the UK it’s worse — something like 30-40% of people manage to shuffle out for a little infrequent walk. In Scotland, 72% of people can’t even manage that. And remember, the “minimum recommended” is something like “walk around the block every 3 days”.

Herculean exercise, my ass. It’s not like we’re all at boot camp every morning. Unless “all our exercise” means “walking to the bathroom”.

Data about gym memberships mean that some people paid for gym memberships on January 2 and that was their entire commitment. How many people do you know that hit the gym regularly? How many people do the bare minimum of exercise every day? How many people use the human body as it was designed to be used — intensely, flexibly, with functional, full-body movements?

Also, quite obviously, exercise alone will not compensate for an obesegenic environment full of garbage food. You’re farting against thunder, folks. Don’t feel alone, though — I also think that the food industry is slapworthy, especially for creating so-called “healthy” or “fitness foods” that are just sugary crap (small cakes “healthy” muffins and jugs of blue Gatorade anyone?).

Finally, if you’re looking at exercise as a way to “burn calories” you’re barking up the wrong tree. Yes, activity does expend additional energy, no question. Ask anyone skiing to the North Pole or doing the Tour de France.

But the main point of exercise, which nobody ever seems to get, is this: exercise makes your body work better. Exercise makes your body deal with nutrients the way it should. It puts carbs to work and mobilizes fat; it directs protein to make more muscle and rebuild joints instead of being whizzed down the drain. Exercise hires a Big Boss for the shipping-receiving warehouse that is your body.

Thinking of exercise as just calorie burning is like thinking of sex as just a way to make a sperm poke its head into an egg casing. Technically true, but so misses about 90% of the point.

BTW I could bitch forever about concepts of “exercise” that all seem to require some financial investment and branding and self-punishment and a paradigm of denial, but I need to go cook up some protein that’ll find a good home thanks to my Big Boss directing it not to be a lazy bastid.


  1. Paula says:

    August 16th, 2009at 9:35 am(#)

    Hi Krista,
    thank you for writing this post! I usually like Time Magazine but I was very disappointed with that article, which I found inaccurate and badly written (and what was it supposed to tell us anyway? that we might as well stop working out?). I confess that I was hoping you were going to say something about it! I completely agree with all the points you make.

    And by the way, thank you so much for this highly inspirational website!

  2. Misty says:

    August 16th, 2009at 10:02 am(#)

    Thanks for taking the time to dissect articles like that and expose the stupidity!

  3. MVE says:

    August 16th, 2009at 10:50 am(#)

    Ah, what treasures we learn from corporate media. Dieting doesn’t work… exercise doesn’t work… Everyone get back to watching TV and eating Big Macs!

    I guess those of us who are eating well and exercising are just hallucinating our gains in fitness and losses in fat?

  4. Elizabeth says:

    August 16th, 2009at 7:22 pm(#)

    Oh God, oh God, I saw this last week and I wanted to hurt this guy. DRINK A PROTEIN SHAKE AND STFU.

    I think what really annoys me is the self-control “muscle” simile, where Cloud says that if you make yourself exercise, you “wear out” that muscle and thus cannot resist food. Yes, because doing things and not doing things are the exact same type of effort.

    It’s kind of interesting, though, to find myself lumped into a group of lunatic superhumans who have managed to do what no normal person can possibly do, through some combination of extraordinary willpower and not-so-latent masochism. My mom brags on me sometimes, and people have asked her how I’ve lost weight. When she tells them, they say “oh, I couldn’t do that.” What? I can do that! I am doing that!

    But I’ve gotten into trouble before for assuming that, if I can do something, it must be easy…

  5. Chris says:

    August 17th, 2009at 9:04 am(#)

    Did the idiot who wrote that Time article actually write that you can turn fat into muscle? Worst article on health/fitness ever.

  6. ephraim says:

    August 17th, 2009at 10:22 am(#)

    For sure, this dude’s journalism is of questionable merit. But, i think the idea that it is possible to exercise well and often and not loose weight is one that doesn’t get talked about enough. People, especially the increasing population of overweight and obese people, need to know that exercise is a good and healthy thing, regardless of whether or not it makes them thinner. God forbid we have to stop looking at every fat person we see walking down the street and not just assume that they’re lazy and inactive!

    I think there actually is something to be said for exceptions to rules. Most people who try to loose weight can’t (in the long term, with 5+ years sustainability). The people who do loose weight and keep it off for 5 years are, in fact, statistical exceptions. We can debate the multitudes of reasons why that might be from here until next year, but that’s the reality. You being an exception is certainly not bad or wrong, but it does mean that (for whatever reasons, whether individual or contextual, biological or environmental) it doesn’t always work to generalize from your experience to everyone else’s.

    It’s always tempting to say “well, I did it, why shouldn’t you be able to?” People do this all the time in terms of class in the US – “well, i grew up poor and pulled myself up by my bootstraps, got an education, and am comfortably affluent now. those people in the ghettos on welfare only have themselves to blame.” There’s a fallacy in both ignoring all the possible differences between you and whoever else, and the general human tendency to attribute one’s own successes to individual merit/effort and one’s own failures to context while attributing others failures to lack of merit/effort and others successes to context.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    August 17th, 2009at 1:51 pm(#)

    MVE: Oh, we’re not hallucinating at all. The point is, we can’t just expect people to eat well and exercise, because it’s just too haaaaaard!

    Venuto’s point about exercise reducing appetite is a good one. Many of us have dealt with feeling “hungry” when our bodies don’t actually need food, but when I leave the gym it’s the reverse; my body craves sustenance, but my brain thinks food sounds icky and would much rather take a nice nap.

    I wonder what the difference is, nutrient-wise, between my post-workout protein shake and Mr. Cloud’s post-workout blueberry bar. Psychologically, of course, there’s a huge gulf; I don’t regard exercise as “grueling expiation” or “abuse,” and the food I eat after it is not a “reward.” It’s telling that Mr. Cloud admits to “self-medicat[ing] with lots of Italian desserts” during a rocky relationship and its aftermath — more proof, if proof were needed, of an unhealthy attitude toward food. He’s gotten rid of the extra desserts, but not the idea that food should be used as a painkiller.

    The whole tone reminds me of the old Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences — food is “sinful,” and exercise purchases forgiveness for past sins and the license to commit future ones. No, no, no!

  8. Ron Dykstra says:

    August 18th, 2009at 8:12 am(#)

    Yummy blue gatorade! It makes my tongue blue.

    I like Krista’s Big Boss paradigm of exercise.

    Lots of people will tell us that body composition stuff is 90% dietary. So why exercise, right?

    I like to think that the exercise leaves the body looking like it exercises once the fat is gone. Why go to the trouble of following an exacting diet if you are just going to look like a deflated bag o’ skin when you are done?

    Thanks Krista!

Get "Fuck Calories"

Enter your information below and the magical gnomes that run Stumptuous will send you a copy of the "Fuck Calories" e-book for free!
Email Marketing by Javelin