Diet and fitness bloggers lash out against Time Magazine piece on exercise

Time magazine exerciseThe premise of the article seemed provocative enough: despite convention wisdom, exercise does not do a whole lot to help people lose weight. Written by Time Magazine’s John Cloud, the article loosely strings together a series of anecdotes and studies to argue that exercise, in the end, isn’t worth all the hype. It even goes further to suggest that in addition to not causing weight loss, exercise can actually result in weight gain because of increase hunger after workouts.

Such health trend pieces are common in mainstream journalism — headlines that challenge whatever commonly-held health belief we’ve harbored over the last decade or so. The piece hit the web over a week ago and within days over a hundred blogs had linked to it, many of which reacted negatively to its premise. Dozens of health and fitness bloggers were not happy that the magazine was pushing a theory that exercise wasn’t very beneficial.

Mike Howard is a health and fitness consultant and has been blogging over at the popular Diet Blog for about two years. Over the weekend he joined his colleagues in attempting to “debunk” the Time piece in a long blog post.

“In summary, the article essentially claims that exercise won’t help you lose weight, and may in fact be responsible for people GAINING weight,” Howard wrote. “Hmmm… The author, John Cloud (ooh the irony in that surname) goes on an anecdotally-based tirade, side-stepping contradictory evidence and common sense on route to his perplexing hypothesis.”

Like many of the other bloggers who reacted to the piece, he noted that there is general truth in what the article is saying — that exercise alone would not cause weight loss. He then went on to differentiate between the various forms of exercise that were lumped into one category in the piece, explaining the long-term health benefits that would result from each.

“I wanted to basically take a step back, see what he was trying to say, and make sure I didn’t misinterpret it,” Howard told me in a phone interview. “And I just picked apart little things; I find generally speaking there are certain pitfalls that mainstream media journalists fall short when reporting on exercise and diet, so I decided that I need to set the record straight.”

Howard said that some online communities were receptive to the article; many took their own anecdotal experiences with exercise — and there lack of success doing it — and so they took the piece as confirmation of their own experiences.

The diet blogger explained that mainstream news often tries to offer provocative, black-and-white statements to grab reader eyeballs, rather than explaining the much more nuanced facts.

“It’s not a black or white issue,” he said. “The headline ‘Exercise does not help much when not combined with proper dietary compliance’ is not going to get many readers, so you have to be on the edge, you have to have a pull, or something like that, and that’s basically a trap that a lot of mainstream media falls into to grab our attention.”

I asked Howard about the blogosphere’s response to the article, and whether fitness experts were able to counter-balance Time Magazine’s coverage.

“I think [blogging] is a very important medium, because I think a lot of people will read this and say, ‘exercise doesn’t do anything for me at all, why bother?’ And I think it’s just a wrong message, so it’s great that we have the rallying cry, sort of that equalizer, where we have that voice that we put out there and at least give people a second opinion.”