At the end of June, the brain trust at Vox published an article that said exercise doesn’t work for weight loss. I guess they’re right because it’s “evidence-based” due to the numerous citations to various studies, most of which I haven’t bothered to read. I guess it was a good thing I didn’t pay attention to all the studies when I decided that exercise would be part of my weight loss plan because heaven forbid I drink the Kool Aid and believe this kind of surrender monkey journalism.
Of course not everyone can or will lose weight using exercise. I’ll provide a more concise, common-sense explanation than this steaming pile of “evidence-based” shit that pretends to pass itself off as an authoritative article. Good lord:
As long as you get on that bike or treadmill, you can keep indulging — and still lose weight. It’s been reinforced by fitness gurus, celebrities, food and beverage companies… like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, and even public-health officials, doctors, and the first lady of the United States. Countless gym memberships, fitness tracking devices, sports drinks, and workout videos have been sold on this promise.
Of course the message is bullshit, and I’m well aware that the food industry has been trying to sell this (remember the god-awful Global Energy Balance Network?). The funny thing to me is that I don’t think the authors have a clue about the number of people in the fitness industry that sell the exact opposite message (1). Of recent, I’ve seen more fitness facilities than not pair nutrition with exercise, whether through offering workshops, resources or the services of a registered dietitian.
Ignore the food industry and ignore the “gurus” that are dumb as boxes of rocks, which pretty much all of them are.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we at OT are smart enough to ignore BS messages like the one above. Now, let’s go back and ask ourselves if we can lose weight through exercise. We can revisit whether we should or shouldn’t after that.
The Pontzer Study
I don’t want to spend too much time on the discussion of the Pontzer Study so I’ll leave it at telling readers why I ignore it: take a simple TDEE estimator and run estimates like I did for a 35-year old, 200 lb male – a lean active one and a sedentary not-so-lean one. The idea that two people of the same weight with significantly different body compositions and significantly different activity levels burn equal amounts of calories is stupid beyond words. Hell, the differences in basal metabolic rates is over 200 calories a day.
I’m not against research or using research studies in their appropriate context. The problem I have here is that I don’t think that the studies are being used in the appropriate context.
One of my favorite articles on the subject of exercise and weight loss was written about a year ago by James Heathers and published at Medium.com. He goes to town on the research:
No coach without profound cognitive impairment would ever propose such basic, low-expectation dreck as a meaningful exercise program…
…Basically, these protocols range between a gussied-up version of ‘go for a walk’ through to ‘come on, shift yourself about a bit I guess’. They have no skill development component, no increase in work capacity to match progress, no anaerobic work of any kind, no mobility or movement pattern work of any kind, basically nothing…
…The reason these programs are identical and as bland as plain white toast is that it is necessary. Having variables sufficiently controlled enough to study demand that we heavily compromise on all the things that make fitness ‘work’. Everyone has to do the same program, for the same length of time, with no thought to any other factors whatsoever. We are trying to observe a controlled stimulus in order that we can derive information from it… but competent training (and the improvement you see in muscle mass, bone density, body composition, vascular health etc. that you see with it) is wildly nonlinear…
…These programs in these studies aren’t designed to cause maximum weight loss. They’re designed to create an environment where we can demonstrate a meaningful difference between our set independent variables, if one exists.
If the purpose of the Vox article is to demonstrate with 60+ studies that shitty exercise protocols will lead to shitty results, then mission accomplished except for the fact that one need not write a long-ass article to say what could be said in ten words or less.
Something I didn’t expect caught my attention:
To explore the effects of more exercise on weight, researchers have followed everybody from people training for marathons to sedentary young twins, and post-menopausal overweight and obese women who ramp up their physical activity through running, cycling, or personal training sessions. Most people in these studies typically only lost a few pounds at best, even under highly controlled scenarios where their diets were kept constant.
Out of curiosity, I skimmed the study on the sedentary twins and the methodology caught my interest. This was a study conducted over a 100-day period with a tightly controlled diet and an exercise routine that was adjusted every 25-days. The average weight loss was 5 kg (11 lbs), or approximately 6% of body weight, almost all of it fat mass, all of it from exercise. That’s approximately 3/4 of a lb per week.
A 100-day period will only result in a “few pounds at best” if only because of the 100-day period. The participants managed an average weight loss of 3/4 a lb per week using very low intensity exercise and having the intensity adjusted every 25 days. For crappy exercise protocols, that’s an impressive rate and shows how exercise can help the weight loss equation when diet is kept in check.
Let’s go further. Kick that experiment out over a year and the weight loss could reach 40 lbs, but that doesn’t matter because the exercise protocols in studies don’t reflect the strategies people use in the real world. This is what we see in a real world example:
Basically, I just went to the gym, and I … walked. On a treadmill, uphill, at a brisk pace, for about an hour every day — and I do mean every day — from July to April…
…August, which meant I moved out of my parents’ house and away from their immaculately stocked refrigerator, and also meant the place where I worked all day was located more than a 10-foot walk from where I slept…
…You’ll notice I talked mostly about weight loss through exercise rather than diet…The thing is, though, it was a lot easier for me to hop on a treadmill than to cut portions, at least at first…
Without all the facts, I have to speculate, but given the 100 lb weight loss, it’s not hard to do so. Since his diet was in check, we don’t have to worry about it for this discussion.
What does a 60-minute brisk walk on an uphill pace look like for someone that’s overweight and just starting to do it? Slow and not so steep. In fact, it’s entirely possible that he didn’t complete the full sixty minutes and had to work up to it. Over time, as his body adapted, he was able to walk the full sixty minutes and able to increase both incline and speed to varying degrees as his conditioning improved and as he was losing weight, a rate of almost two pounds per week for an entire year.
When I trained for a half marathon, I began as a sedentary individual. I had to work up to the ability to be able to run (slowly) for a sustained period of time (I literally walked before I ran). I followed a specific program that incorporated progressive overload and per the SAID Principle, my body was adapting rapidly, losing weight at a relatively fast pace.
If the “evidence” paints a less successful story, the “evidence” addresses people that simply don’t work as hard, which brings me to my next point:
Exercise is hard
Yes, if you want to create a significant caloric deficit through exercise, you must develop the work capacity to do it. That does take effort, a lot of it, maybe more effort than most people want to make, especially those that look to exercise solely for the health benefits, which is perfectly okay.
However, once again, this idea of “significant” weight loss comes up, this time through a graphic showing the projected weight loss of a 200-lb person running four-days a week for 60 minutes each. Over a month, the projected weight loss is approximately one-pound per week.
I don’t know what assumptions were made regarding what was done on non-running days and I think this analysis ignores what can or has to happen to someone’s weight to get them up to that work capacity, but again, I’m scratching my head wondering why we believe that a rate of weight loss of one pound per week is somehow bad.
In one of the upcoming installments, I’m going to discuss dieting and weight loss and I should address the problems we as a society have with expectations versus reality. I have no idea what people think they should achieve losing weight through exercise, but if this article is any indication, it’s much higher than realistically possible.
I’m pretty wired into the bodybuilding world, and because of that, I’ve read a lot about the nutritional strategies to build muscle, maintain weight and lose weight. While some of this applies more to leaner individuals and obviously contest preparation strategies don’t apply to regular individuals but a rate of weight loss of one pound of week is considered good. It minimizes risk of loss of lean mass and the deficit is sustainable without too many issues with the body’s tendencies towards homeostasis.
Why you shouldn’t exercise to lose weight, explained with zero studies:
So yes, people can lose weight through exercise assuming that they’re not dietary morons and that they’re willing to put in a level of effort that produces the necessary work capacity. There are no short cuts, secrets, magic portions or unicorns. It all comes down to effort.
Should people exercise to lose weight? That depends. I’ll do Vox a solid here by writing what should have been published instead of all the crap I had to suffer through reading in order to bring readers my opinion on the subject:
(1) Even if you like exercise, unless you’re planning on embracing a fitness lifestyle, I would recommend people approach exercise exclusively from a general fitness and health perspective.
(2) Injury risk. People marketing high intensity exercise programs promise rapid weight loss and so long as these people are including a halfway decent nutrition plan, rapid weight loss will occur. However, the risk to benefit relationship needs to be carefully considered (I discussed this over a year ago here).
(3) People don’t know enough about what works and what doesn’t. Exercise for fat loss over an extended period of time entails a different skill and knowledge base. There’s too much misinformation and falling down the wrong rabbit hole could lead to wasted time and effort followed by discouragement.
(4) Some people hate exercise. If willpower is required to exercise, it’ll end up the same way as it does with dieting, not well.
(5) If the goal is to confront a body image issue, run the other way. This will end very badly
(6) The myriad of other factors and reasons that people either can’t (physical, life, work-life, etc., economic) or shouldn’t exercise or view exercise as a means of weight loss will go into this catch-all point.
That said, despite there being a few decent kernels of truth among this awful article, pay no attention to the defeatist “evidence-based” types that claim to be experts on matters of exercise simply because they attend spin classes, consult experts I’ve never heard of (read: none of the evidence-based scientific types that not only publish papers but actually train clients to do what the authors say shouldn’t be done…cough James Krieger and Alan Aragon…cough) and completely butcher the concept of what is and what is not a reasonable expectation of weight loss.
These people are the gym equivalents of the people that grab the heaviest weights possible, walk into my beloved squat rack, do their cheat dumbbell curls, still have arms that look like they don’t even lift and spend more time texting than lifting.
I think I’ll stick to the people that know what they’re talking about. I suggest you do the same.
(1) If you take advice from celebrity “gurus”, I feel sorry for you.