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.”

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5 Comments

  1. Megan Says:

    Well, this is anecdotal again, but I completely agree that exercise is overrated when it comes to losing weight. I recently lost a third of my body weight, and I did it by cutting calories. Increasing exercise just made me hungrier.

    It’s funny, because people would always ask me if I was doing some sort of crazy exercise. I think they didn’t want to hear the real advice: “eat less”.

  2. Milo Says:

    So, Megan, what you did was decrease your caloric intake while maintaining the same physical activity – whatever that physical activity may have been.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but in relation to your caloric intake, your caloric expenditure increased, right?

    Your ratio of moving to eating increased. More moving, less eating – hmmmm. And since you were eating less, you most likely started eating smarter, too.

    Sounds like you found a great balance between eating and physical activity. That balance is all anybody ever needs.

  3. jason Says:

    Simon, Interesting article (both Time and your post). I do think that Time over-generalized it somewhat. The desire to eat more after strenuous exercise seems to be well developed in scientific research (believed to be caused by the increase in ghrelin hormone, which is believed to be tied to strenuous exercise).

    I came across similar findings in some of my research for an article on my site http://www.20bmi.com At the time, I was writing on the effects of dietary fiber and came across some interesting (if dry) writing on the effects of ghrelin and another hormone, leptin on hunger.

    So, while I understand Time’s references to the “self control muscle” (or something like that) I am not sure I agree with one of their conclusions that exercise causes weight gain because the desire to eat later just can’t be withstood. There are many ways to control appetite, both pharmacalogically and by other means.

    Just my 2c…

  4. Biff Says:

    News Flash!!

    One really good indication that you are beginning to lose weight is that you will get hungry.

    How you respond to that hunger is what will determine whether you actually lose weight.

    Hunger is not an imperative. It is a suggestion. You have to sort out, consciously, if the hunger signal is a valid one. If you are, in fact, about to perish for lack of nutrition, by all means, eat. If, on the other hand, you have stored some body fat somewhere, and you’d like to burn it up, ignore the hunger. The physiology that sends the hunger signal has a backup plan. It will actually make arrangements to burn some of that fat while it waits for the french fries that aren’t being stuffed down your throat.

    In my case, mastering the response to the hunger signals has allowed me to lose about 40 pounds in the lasdt 14 months.

    I’ve supplemented my caloric control with stationary biking 1 hour 3X a week and running on the weekends.

  5. Jeff Says:

    Both Howard and Cloud are correct. Cloud did generalize ‘exercise’ when we know that pure resistance training and pure aerobic exercise have quite different physiological effects. Howard ‘debunks’ the article by ‘picking it apart,’ and in some cases may be correct. However, my observations and 10 years experience as a trainer have led me to conclude that Cloud’s conclusion that many, if not most, people will eat more when they exercise is correct. I’ve had several clients that wanted to train with me for the exercise but insisted that they not ‘diet,’ that is, not follow my dietary advice. One of these clients recently gained 10 pounds in 8 weeks. So I showed him the article and he said, “That’s me!” Also, this blooger states that Cloud, ‘loosely strings together a series of anecdotes and studies.’ The article seemed to me to be well written and ties the anectodal stories to the studies quite well…and the studies are peer-reviewed and respectable by most, if not all, scientific standards.


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