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Is working out for weight loss a waste of time?

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | November 13, 2014

hawaii-chair-oThe New York Times took a swipe at exercise yesterday, claiming that it “may not” be effective in weight loss. The accusation, featured in the paper’s Well blog, stems from a recent study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that put 81 overweight women on a treadmill (not all at once, I’m assuming) for a 12-week program. A few of them saw results, but 70% of them actually got fatter. Oh no!

Hold on. Before you list your Hawaii Hula Chair on eBay in disgust, here are a few details to consider:

The women were told that they would be joining a fitness study and would exercise in order to improve their aerobic endurance. The scientists asked the women not to change their eating habits in any way.

If you make a bunch of people who aren’t into fitness work out and tell them it has nothing to do with weight loss. What do you think is going to happen?

While this study didn’t track the women’s eating and movement habits away from the lab, it is likely that those who gained weight began eating more and moving less when they weren’t on the treadmills, “probably without meaning to,” Dr. Gaesser said.

The women all experienced improved cardiovascular fitness, so something right happened. The workouts did their job. They increased daily caloric burn and increased metabolism. You can’t really blame the exercise for increased caloric intake or lethargy. Last I checked, grey matter, not muscle fiber, is the source of the Seven Deadly Sins, including sloth and gluttony.

The NYT article also cites a 2013 review that takes a similar “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza” approach: “The evidence is suggestive, but not conclusive, that when initiating an exercise program with the intent of losing weight, some individuals compensate by decreasing their (non-exercise physical activity) and (non-exercise physical thermogenesis).” 

Okay, um, thanks for that. Here’s a solution: Don’t slack off the rest of the day just because you worked out. This research seems to assume that free will and willpower play no role in human behavior.

Claiming exercise isn’t effective for weight loss based on this research is a little like claiming arms aren’t good for lifting couches based on a study where a guy tried to lift a couch with one arm. Weight loss needs to be part of a holistic strategy that includes not just exercise, but healthy eating and an overall active approach to life. Same with couch lifting, only the requirements are four arms, two backs, and the promise of a six-pack upon completion (in moderation, of course).

So if you want to drop pounds, you should absolutely work out. In addition to feeding your vanity (again with the deadly sins), weight loss has scores of other benefits, including improving your cardiovascular system, managing your blood sugar, and balancing your hormones. Exercise addresses all these issues in ways diets and surgery can’t.

Just make sure it’s part of a rounded, overall approach. If you happen to be a Beachbody customer, that means when you buy a program, read the damn nutrition guide too. It’s hard to miss. It’s usually a big, white book with a bunch of vegetable photos in it–and odds are I helped create it. So if you liked this article enough to get to this point, you can rest assured that your nutrition guide won’t suck either.

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