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August 7th, 2009
07:06 AM ET

TIME: 'Why exercise won't make you thin'

Whether because exercise makes us hungry or because we want to reward ourselves, many people eat more — and eat more junk food, like doughnuts — after going to the gym.

Whether because exercise makes us hungry or because we want to reward ourselves, many people eat more — and eat more junk food, like doughnuts — after going to the gym.
By John Cloud
TIME

As I write this, tomorrow is Tuesday, which is a cardio day. I'll spend five minutes warming up on the VersaClimber, a towering machine that requires you to move your arms and legs simultaneously. Then I'll do 30 minutes on a stair mill. On Wednesday a personal trainer will work me like a farm animal for an hour, sometimes to the point that I am dizzy — an abuse for which I pay as much as I spend on groceries in a week. Thursday is "body wedge" class, which involves another exercise contraption, this one a large foam wedge from which I will push myself up in various hateful ways for an hour. Friday will bring a 5.5-mile run, the extra half-mile my grueling expiation of any gastronomical indulgences during the week.

I have exercised like this — obsessively, a bit grimly — for years, but recently I began to wonder: Why am I doing this? Except for a two-year period at the end of an unhappy relationship — a period when I self-medicated with lots of Italian desserts — I have never been overweight. One of the most widely accepted, commonly repeated assumptions in our culture is that if you exercise, you will lose weight. But I exercise all the time, and since I ended that relationship and cut most of those desserts, my weight has returned to the same 163 lb. it has been most of my adult life. I still have gut fat that hangs over my belt when I sit. Why isn't all the exercise wiping it out?

It's a question many of us could ask. More than 45 million Americans now belong to a health club, up from 23 million in 1993. We spend some $19 billion a year on gym memberships. Of course, some people join and never go. Still, as one major study — the Minnesota Heart Survey — found, more of us at least say we exercise regularly. The survey ran from 1980, when only 47% of respondents said they engaged in regular exercise, to 2000, when the figure had grown to 57%.

And yet obesity figures have risen dramatically in the same period: a third of Americans are obese, and another third count as overweight by the Federal Government's definition. Yes, it's entirely possible that those of us who regularly go to the gym would weigh even more if we exercised less. But like many other people, I get hungry after I exercise, so I often eat more on the days I work out than on the days I don't. Could exercise actually be keeping me from losing weight?

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Filed under: Health
soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. Whitney

    I have found that WHAT we eat is primary for health, losing weight and our mental capacity.

    Organic foods......fruits, vegetables and some meat, in that order is best. Limited grain foods (my personal belief is that we haven't evolved enough to truly digest this yet ) as these make you gain weight. Corn, wheat products and pastas all tend to make one retain weight.

    Sugar is very strong in creating hunger. Stay away from it if possible, we get enough sugar in pastas etc.

    Combine this with exercise and the weight should gradually and steadily come off.....

    February 24, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  2. Dan

    One flaw in Cloud's thesis is that the in study he cited, the exercise group was told NOT to restrain their diet. HOW could Cloud now say that exercise makes dietary restraint impossible? Also, the exercise group was only exercising 198 minutes a week, a level at which I have never lost weight. I have to exercise at least twice that duration to begin to lose weight. I took Cloud's notion for 8 years, that diet was more important than exercise and could not lose much weight that way. I now exercise every day (riding my bike to work) for at least an hour and have now lost 65 pounds. Yes, I do restrain my diet, but I didn't have to cut back my calories as much as if I didn't exercise. I do a food diary and eat about 2000 calories a day- I would have to eat at most 1500 if I took Cloud's advice and not exercise. If people take Cloud's advice and not exercise when trying to lose weight, the people risk losing more fat free mass, as well as lowering their metabolic rate, which makes greater caloric restriction necessary. I also think what one eats affects one's hunger level more than if a person exercises or not. Eating vegetables and high fiber foods and drinking enough water decreases hunger more than not exercising does. Eating too much sugar increases it. In fact, sometimes exercise decreases my hunger. I also think the "reward" mechanism shows that people have to do a kind of exercise that is enjoyable, so that it becomes its own reward. Bicycling as well as walking are two kinds of exercise that many people would enjoy doing. Dietary moderation along with adequate water intake, as well as ample exercise is key for weight control. Not exercising, or only moving as Cloud suggests, such as walking and not doing a kind of exercise that raises my breathing and heart rates makes weight loss very difficult. Junk food makes me hungry, not exercise.

    December 12, 2009 at 9:04 am |
  3. Dan

    One flaw in what Cloud is that the in study he cited, the exercise group was told NOT to restrain their diet. HOW could Cloud now say that exercise makes dietary restraint impossible? Also, the exercise group was only exercising 198 minutes a week, a level at which I have never lost weight. I have to exercise at least twice that duration to begin to lose weight. I took Cloud's notion for 8 years, that diet was more important than exercise and could not lose much weight that way. I now exercise every day (riding my bike to work) for at least an hour and have now lost 65 pounds. Yes, I do restrain my diet, but I didn't have to cut back my calories as much as if I didn't exercise. I do a food diary and eat about 2000 calories a day- I would have to eat at most 1500 if I took Cloud's advice and not exercise. If people take Cloud's advice and not exercise when trying to lose weight, the people risk losing more fat free mass, as well as lowering their metabolic rate, which makes greater caloric restriction necessary. I also think what one eats affects one's hunger level more than if a person exercises or not. Eating vegetables and high fiber foods and drinking enough water decreases hunger more than not exercising does. Eating too much sugar increases it. In fact, sometimes exercise decreases my hunger. I also think the "reward" mechanism shows that people have to do a kind of exercise that is enjoyable, so that it becomes its own reward. Bicycling as well as walking are two kinds of exercise that many people would enjoy doing. Dietary moderation along with adequate water intake, as well as ample exercise is key for weight control. Not exercising, or only moving as Cloud suggests, such as walking and not doing a kind of exercise that raises my breathing and heart rates makes weight loss very difficult. Junk food makes me hungry, not exercise.

    December 12, 2009 at 8:06 am |
  4. IStupid

    This is probably the most idiotic article I have read from Time/CNN. Seriously, does time employ editors?

    October 30, 2009 at 9:07 pm |
  5. Bluzeman

    I am 58 yrs old male. 5'8" 250 lbs . I joined a gym Sep 2008 to lose weight, look fit and feel "healthy". I was diagnosed type II diabetic in 2007 and almost died a few years back due to a pulmunary embolism caused by DVT in my leg – from sitting all day in a cublicle on computer and sitting around even more in a bar after work. I was on diabetic pills, HCT and Blood Pressure pills. When I started working out after work, after 3 months , my Dr took me off the diabetes pill. I asked him about taking me off BP – which is under control , he said "not until you get the weight off which is the sole reason for your problems" . I work out 2 days cardio and 2 days strength. one hour each. when I started I could not last 15 mins. After one year I still weigh about the the same as I did in sep 2008 so the article does have some merit in my case but I feel so much better. I realize nutrition – not diet is my problem ( I eat about or less then 2000 cals. a day but it is WHAT I eat is the problem) and it is my next To-Do. I will not get discouraged by this article. I carry my gym bag even on the days I dont work out to remind myself.

    September 9, 2009 at 7:01 pm |
  6. alice hughes forrest

    I am a certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and have been a professional in the field of fitness for over 30 years. I can tell you that I have never been more appalled by an article in my life, especially considering the serious obesity epidemic that our Country is facing, and that includes both adults and now children! Publishing this tripe is not only inexcusable and irresponsible, but is also destructive and demotivating for the thousands of individuals who are attempting to regain a healthy life-style through 'safe' exercise and a healthier, nutrtional intake of calories. John Cloud should really be ashamed of himself and so should Time and CNN!

    Alice Forrest, MSSA
    NASM certified personal trainer
    NASM certified corrective exercise specialist
    ACE certified group fitness instructor

    August 17, 2009 at 8:17 pm |
  7. Ben MS, CSCS

    First off, Brad – that is an excellent rebuttal, hopefully John Cloud reads it and realizes what he missed or misread.

    As an exercise professional, I'm glad to see that people are questioning this story as most of the comments make very good points. One thing I would like to applaud everyone on is knowing that you CANNOT turn fat into muscle (I've lost a lot of respect for Time Magazine and CNN for letting this complete fallacy slip through). One thing that I would like to let everyone know is that muscle DOES NOT weigh more than fat – one pound of fat weighs the exact same as one pound of muscle. Now muscle is more dense than fat, that is ten pounds of muscle takes up about the same amount of space as 3 or 4 pounds of fat. Just wanted to clear the air about that.

    Ben

    August 13, 2009 at 9:50 am |
  8. Brad Schoenfeld, CSCS

    The biggest problem with the article is that its author, John Cloud, didn't read the research on the subject. In fact, he skewed the facts to support a conclusion that is spurious if not downright wrong. He apparently is attempting to spur controversy in order to sell magazines, while at the same time doing a grave disservice to the general public. I'd encourage you to read my rebuttal to Mr. Cloud on my blog, http://www.workout911.com, where I actually cite the research on the subject.

    Brad

    August 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm |
  9. dmm

    It seems to me that if one has the self-discipline to get themselves to the gym several times per week and put themselves through the sorts of rigorous exercise the author describes, they should also have the self-discipline to put down the double-chocolate muffins after the work out... If someone is serious about losing weight, they will consider what made them gain too much weight in the first place. 99 times out of 100, this will include lack of exercise. It's simple math. They ate more than they needed, exercised less than they needed.

    August 10, 2009 at 8:36 am |
  10. David M

    This article is just plain ridiculous... A better title would have been "Why Eating Junk Food Nullifes the Benefits of Exercise"...

    August 10, 2009 at 7:31 am |
  11. John

    This is one of the most ill-conceived articles that I have ever read on CNN. The reasoning that the author used, and the meager support for his claim, left me confused. Did anyone proofread his work?

    More importantly, it sends a dangerous message, and actively discourages a concept that is one of the root causes of obesity. It's basic thermodynamics. Human beings aren't an exception in the animal world.

    Certainly, taking in more calories than you burn can counter the benefits of exercise. This is not new, shocking, or in any way controversial. However, many human beings manage to take advantage of the laws of thermodynamics, and use exercise as a weight loss tool that allows them to burn extra calories, and eat what they like.

    It seems to me that the author is unaware of how many people actually eat what they want, and are able to stay thin through consistent activity.

    This is easily understood in the case of someone like Michael Phelps, who eats whatever he wants in great numbers. His calorie intake is off the charts. He stays thin because he's constantly burning those calories, and his metabolism has been calibrated to the routine for quite sometime. He's an extreme example, but the formula is relevant at every level.

    It is not a foregone conclusion that everyone who embarks on an exercise plan is going to eat more after they exercise, and that's what the author's entire premise is based on. He has said nothing new. He has merely manipulated the facts to support his premise.

    As for fat turning into muscle, I would like to think that some effort is made to edit, and fact check these contributions, but it doesn't seem that way. Anyone who has even basic knowledge of physiology is shaking their head at that comment.

    August 9, 2009 at 11:40 pm |
  12. Kristin Cederquist

    Speaking as someone who recently lost 60 pounds and has kept it off for 4 months now with the help of exercise, I must say that this really had me baffled, as did the relative lack of discussion as to the long-term benefits of exercise. Weight-loss takes an amazing amount of self-control and motivation, and much of it is making better choices. Put down the doughnut post-workout and grab a glass of skim milk. Carbs and protein to refuel!

    I was really hoping that CNN wouldn't post the Time magazine article, and then I found out that they did. Now this gives people who really NEED to exercise just another excuse not to. Well done.

    August 9, 2009 at 6:10 pm |
  13. Crazy Finn

    Call me anecdotal, but exercise works for me.

    When I walk into the kitchen, I can tell whether I'm there because I need nutrition, perhaps because I'd been working out- or whether I'm just wanting to fill some other kind of emptiness, perhaps because I'm feeling unproductive, unloved, or blue.

    In a rich country like ours, food is an ever-present, irresistible quick fix for just about any kind of problem or mood. I'm not a nutritionist or a doctor, but I expect that this is not only why "exercise doesn't work," but why so many people are trying to make it work in the first place.

    Exercise because you like doing it. Eat when you're hungry. Find and pursue you passions, and the calories will take care of themselves.

    August 7, 2009 at 9:01 pm |
  14. Larry

    It's a blend of healthy diet and exercise. You can't exercise and eat 3-quarter pounders and expect to lose weight.

    As for that gut fat that hangs over your belt–try situps. That's just untoned muscle.

    August 7, 2009 at 1:27 pm |
  15. Jeffrey

    I am 45 yrs old, 5 ft. 10, and my weight varies between 180 – 190 lbs. So, if you go by medical charts, I am quite overweight. I excercise and/or jog 3 – 4 times/week, and I am quite physically fit.
    So YES, muscle does indeed weigh more than fat. However, eating a balanced diet and excercise are critically important as my routine of excercise quite literally saved my life at the end of 2005, as I was involved in a tragic car accident. (And I survived)

    August 7, 2009 at 1:11 pm |
  16. Declan Condron

    I was very disturbed and annoyed after watching this segment about "Why exercise wont make you thin" this morning. As an exercise physiologist and someone who has been in the fitness industry for over 12 years I am appalled that CNN, the self-professed "most trusted name in news" can air a 3 minute piece based on one research paper and leave the viewer with the take home message of not to bother exercising cause it is a waste of time and may in fact cause you to gain weight.

    As obesity in adults and children continues to rise at an alarming rate in the US, coupled with the massive health care costs of dealing with this epidemic, I think it is extremely irresponsible of CNN to sensationalizing this type of story. Since when did CNN become the National Enquirer??

    What about the thousands of studies done on how exercise plays a very major role in controlling weight, not to mention it's many other health benefits? Or what about the millions of people worldwide who have improved their health and reduced their body fat percentage engaging in an exercise program? Are all these studies and people nullified by one study done on 463 women?

    I guess this is what passes for "news" these days. I can only hope that CNN will do some sort of follow up piece that presents the other side of this argument and give some hope to the millions out there struggling with weight and health issues. Unfortunately I'm not holding my breath.

    Declan, MS, CSCS

    August 7, 2009 at 10:31 am |
  17. Randy Griesinger

    Kiran Chetry: Your interview with Time magazine's John Cloud was a mystery. I've been weight training for 38 years. Let me shed some light on the subject. Many of the comments posted are true and some are false.
    1. Eating small meals 5-6 times a day vs. 3 heavy meals will make your system burn and digest food much better.
    2. You must eat good quality food at least 6 days a week. It's OK to go off the diet once a week, but don't overindulge.
    3. Converting fat to muscle is impossible. 2 different tissues!
    4. Chris Phillips comment: Trained twice a day for 2 years. Classic case of OVER TRAINING.
    5. The most important aspect of exercise, weight training, and cardio.??
    SLEEP!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Remember what the internal physical aspect of weight training is: IT'S BREAKING DOWN MUSCLE TISSUE & USING THE FAT AS FUEL. You only have about 1.5 hours of oxygenated blood in your body per day that can be used to alter/firm/strengthen.
    SLEEP is the time when your body repairs itself after exercise. You must eat the correct food/fuel to rebuild. It's much better to train hard 3 days a week and understand that your muscles/tendons need to be TOTALLY rested. If there is ANY soreness, give that body part another 24 hours OFF!
    Remember 2 things:
    1. It's much better to UNDER TRAIN than OVER TRAIN. If the quality of your repetitions is failing. > {Cheating! } STOP! and MODIFY your sets/reps.
    2. A minimum of 15 minutes of slow, easy, STRETCHING + 5 minutes on a bike, is required before a hard training session. You want as much warm, flowing blood within that body part you are working. WHY? It prevents INJURIES and will RESPOND to your training.
    How many of us come straight from work and jump, COLD, on the bench press?
    That's an injury disaster waiting to happen!
    One more point: You need WATER to flush your system out during training. The majority of the "specialized" gym drinks > worthless !
    After your training session...... 5 minutes of stretching the body part worked!
    Hope these pointers help everyone!
    Ps: If your training getting boring, alter every 6 weeks. Muscle has memory! STIMULATE/CONFUSE/GROW ! !
    Ps 2: Total daily time in the gym? 1 hour 2o minutes > DONE >>>> EAT >>>>> ZZZZZZZZZZ
    Make it FUN/FAST! You WILL see CHANGES!

    August 7, 2009 at 10:11 am |
  18. Marty

    What will make you thin is eating carefully calibrated protein and carb meals 5 times a day. Breaks the insulin resistance that so many of us experience which makes food turn to fat. Tone your body and be the silhouette you desire with healthy, medically approved Silhouette Solutions. 30 -37 lbs in 90 days with a toned body. Contact Marty@ourdiamondteam.com

    August 7, 2009 at 9:06 am |
  19. Patrick Quinn

    I just watched this writer on CNN and I was disappointed in his knowledge of health science. He actually mentioned fat being converted to muscle. He is not an expert in this field and the study that he referenced is not a strong defense for his perspective. People who are trying to lose weight do not need this kind of wellness confusion demotivating them. Losing weight can be a complicated experience for some of us, but it can be done with consistent exercise and smarter lower calorie nutrition. People must work hard (progressively increase intensity) when they exercise. If you do not overload your body with an anaerobic or aerobic stimulus then you will plateau and not reach your weight goals. More importantly, you will prevent more cardiac ailments that come from inactivity. We must stayed active and exercise(gym, home, park, beach, etc) Nike Inc. said it best, "Just Do It"

    August 7, 2009 at 9:00 am |
  20. Elias

    CNN needs to screen their alleged experts more effectively especially with the explosion of obesity in recent years.

    August 7, 2009 at 8:59 am |
  21. Pam

    Sure, if you try to justify eating cookies and candy by telling yourself that you've earned it by working out, you're not going to see a difference in your body. The idea is that working out AND modifying your eating habits will result in gradual weight loss and a permanent change in habits. The blanket statement that "exercise doesn't lead to weight loss" is unfair, untrue, and only serves to frustrate those trying to lose weight.

    August 7, 2009 at 8:56 am |
  22. Big Country

    This author is the epitome of stupid, cheers to the people who have commented on this blog suggesting this idiot change his diet.

    August 7, 2009 at 8:55 am |
  23. Richard Fritz

    Yeah sure & the same condition occured to WWII POW's, they just could not loose weight either, so they stopped exersizeing- NOT, they ate LESS, how about putting the spoon down and eating less at a sitting- I eat 8 meals a day- very small- if you filled my plate at a chain resturant i can only eat half or less- my stomach is NOT streched out that is why small meals fill me & NO SUGAR, NO CANDY & NO Soda POP- Mango and Kiwi & Apple on my desk for a snack always

    August 7, 2009 at 8:33 am |
  24. Chris Phillips

    I agree with all other posts. I worked out twice a day for 2 years and went from a 230 lb fatty to 195 lb muscular man, but also required a complete change in diet. Quaker Oats for breakfast, fruit for 3 snacks, and sensible lunches and dinners.

    August 7, 2009 at 8:31 am |
  25. Heyward

    I don't know about this so-called study. What I do know is that thanks to doing 45mins of cardio daily and changing my eating habits, I lost 40 lbs to date. Exercise works for this 51yr old man to help loose weight.

    August 7, 2009 at 8:14 am |
  26. mike-sey

    muscle weighs more than fat!

    August 7, 2009 at 8:13 am |
  27. RJ

    .......its called put the bag of chips down, its called eat a salad! you could run around the world but if your still eating junk you`ll always be fat!

    August 7, 2009 at 7:52 am |