11.15.12: Exercise Won’t Make You Skinny.

A few years ago, Time Magazine published an interesting piece on exercise and weight management.  It crossed my mind as I’ve been contemplating joining a health club again – the Wee One being a little older, and me being more than a little tired of trying (unsuccessfully) to motivate myself to gyrate in front of a DVD at home.  The article caused quite a tizzy at the time:


If you just read the title, or if you skim the article, or even if you read the whole thing and take it solely at face value, you’ll conclude that there’s no real benefit to exercising if you’re trying to lose weight.  In fact, you may conclude that exercise will make you GAIN weight, and you really shouldn’t do it … even though exercise has a constellation of other health benefits, from reducing stress to preventing many of the chronic diseases and conditions that plague our population.

And now, the truth, which people so rarely want to hear: the title of the article is not a complete and total lie.  Exercise won’t make you thin.  Whoa, whoa – stick with me, here.  Physical activity is a critical piece of any weight-loss and health-improvement journey.  But it’s not the only piece.  Diet (meaning simply “what you put in your mouth,” not “a restrictive and ultimately unlivable eating regimen that somebody made up and for which you must at least buy a book, if not a bunch of products”) must go hand-in-hand with exercise if you’re trying to lose weight and live longer and healthier.

If you work out for two hours a day and then fill your body with junk, then guess what?  You are what you eat, and you’ll get junk for results.  Vigorous exercise can indeed make you feel more hungry.  It should!  You’re burning a lot of calories, and your body needs fuel.  Therefore, you must never starve yourself; rather, you must “eat smarter.”  Your “reward” for a good workout is NOT a fast-food burger, jumbo fries, and a shake.  You’ve worked hard, which is its own reward.  Why would you want to mess that up by dumping sugar and salt into your tank?  When you’re hungry, eat good foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains.  Then you’ll have strength and energy to attack the next workout, and you’ll see the results you’re looking for on the scale and in the mirror.

Try this concept on for size: if you work out for two hours a day and starve yourself, you’ll see some cosmetic changes – call them “improvements” if you like – but the changes won’t last, and you’ll see other aspects of your life deteriorate.  Or this: if you work out for two hours a day and fill your guts with processed, synthetic foods that boast reduced calories, lower fat, increased (but artificial) fiber, you will reach a point at which your workouts will begin to suffer.  Your digestive system will grow impatient with the plastic you’re pushing through it.  Your enjoyment of food will nosedive, and who knows what all of those chemicals and artificial weirdness are doing to you in the long term?

A wise friend of mine in the wellness business used to say that physical activity is not about weight loss – it’s about living.  I really like that perspective.  Sure, exercise burns calories – and weight loss, ultimately, is about burning more calories than you take in – but it’s so much more than that.  Think of physical activity as your stress relief, your life insurance policy, your Fountain of Youth.  It’s the way you maintain your weight loss.  Make it as important as brushing your teeth.  Stop thinking of your workouts as your ticket to a smaller size, and start thinking of what they’re doing for your bones, brain, muscles, heart, lungs, and joints.  Become a total package of wellness.

As you might expect, many researchers and practitioners flipped out and composed responses to the Time article.  At my health club, we used the article as a springboard for some great conversations and teachable moments.  The American Council on Exercise (ACE) published this one: http://www.acefitness.org/article/2804/

Ultimately, we all know that a life of wellness includes eating right, staying active, and getting enough rest and time for yourself so that you can feel strong, productive, and healthy.  Today is square one, friends.  Be the total package.

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