TIME's Great Exercise Debate: What's In It for You?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
If you follow health and fitness news, you’ve probably seen the cover story in the current issue of TIME magazine: Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.

Unfortunately, this article is riddled with headlines and statements that seem more designed to attract attention and readers than to provide useful information—a common problem in this age of declining readership. But if you can get past the sensational headlines and faulty logic (a connection between two things doesn't mean one causes the other), the actual information in the article is nothing new or surprising.

We’ve known for a long time that, while exercise is clearly one of the foundations of good physical and mental health, it is not by itself enough to produce substantial weight loss. That takes a healthy diet with fewer calories in it than you need to maintain your current weight at your current activity level, whatever that activity level may be. You can exercise ‘til the cows come home, but if you still eat more than you need, you’re not going to lose any of that extra fat you’d like to get rid of. This may be news to Mr. Cloud, but not to the rest of us.

Cloud’s article does go one step further by speculating that exercise may actually be one of the reasons people overeat, and that's where he starts getting into trouble. This speculation is based on the results of several recent studies, described in the article, which indicate that exercise may have three common “side effects” that could, in theory, make weight loss more difficult for many people:

Side Effect No. 1: Exercise increases appetite, often leading people to eat more than they would otherwise, offsetting the calorie burning benefits of their exercise, or even leading to a calorie surplus.

Side Effect No. 2: Exercise weakens your “self-control muscle.” If you use up your limited capacity for self-control by forcing yourself to stay on the treadmill for 60 minutes, it’s going to be much harder for you to resist treats and snacks, and stick to your diet plan for the rest of the day.

Side Effect No. 3: Exercise (especially vigorous, challenging exercise) can lead to tiredness, muscle soreness and other problems which actually reduce the amount of normal physical activity the individual engages in during the day, reducing overall calorie expenditure.

There’s not much doubt that these problems can happen, or even that they do happen for lots of people. But are they inevitable or unavoidable? Do they inevitably have to interfere with your weight loss efforts as much as this article seems to suggest? I suppose they could—IF you were a slave to your appetites, and incapable of figuring out how to feed yourself what you actually need.

But is that what you are? Not according to the tons of scientific evidence and personal testimony from successful weight losers that Mr. Cloud left out of his article.

The real question here, in the end, is whether any of this scientific evidence means you should change your approach to exercise in order to meet your weight loss goals. In this blog and in Thursday’s blog, you’ll find some info you’ll want to know in order to figure this out for yourself.

Part One: Exercise, Appetite & Fat Loss

Pretty much everything we know about human metabolism indicates that exercise should increase your appetite. The basic function of appetite is to generate a balance between energy in and energy out, and to ensure that you get the right “nutritional stuff” for your particular needs. It couldn’t do either job for you if you could go out and burn an extra 500-1000 calories or more without experiencing an increase in your hunger.

This may not be obvious to us as individuals, though, for several reasons. One is that exercise can temporarily suppress appetite. Some people don’t feel hungry until sometime later on, which means they may not make the connection between the exercise and the extra appetite. And being the kind of creatures we are, it's pretty easy to feel the hunger without knowing what, exactly, our body really needs or when we've gotten enough of it. (For a quick introduction to these issues, check these articles on High Performance Nutrition.

Another important source of difficulty here is due to the way our bodies use energy during exercise and then replace that energy. The bottom line, in terms of weight loss, is that fat doesn't play a big role on either end of this process.

Whenever you’re doing some physical activity that is more vigorous than a moderate walk, most of the fuel for that activity is not going to come from your most recent meal, or from the extra body fat you have on board. It’s going to come from specialized fuel sources already stored in your muscle cells, or elsewhere in your body. It would be great if, every time we need some extra energy, our bodies would take some body fat out of our fat cells and use it to fuel whatever we are doing. Sadly, though, that’s not how it works. The more vigorous your activity is (which corresponds roughly to how high your heart rate gets), the smaller the role that fat plays in fueling that activity. The primary energy source your body uses to fuel higher intensity activity is glucose—which it gets by breaking down the carbohydrates (mainly) and protein (to a much lesser degree if your diet is balanced) you eat. Your body actually stores glucose in your muscle cells (it’s called glycogen in this form), and draws on this stored glycogen to fuel your muscles during exercise.

Once you’re done exercising and back in your recliner again, your body needs to replace this used up glycogen so that you’ll be ready for your next bout of exercise or activity. Naturally enough, it revs up your appetite so you’ll eat enough to accomplish this objective. This is necessary because your body can’t turn body fat into the glycogen your muscle cells need. It has to come from the carbs and protein you eat (or from the protein stored in your muscle and organ tissues).

The bottom line here is that the relationship between exercise and fat loss is very indirect. Exercise doesn’t burn very much fat as fuel, and it doesn’t cause your body to use stored body fat to replace all the calories your exercise burned up. Basically, what does happen is that exercise gives your body something to do (ie, making new glycogen) with some of the carbs and protein you eat so that you don’t turn a lot of those calories into new body fat. While all that’s going on, your body is then free to use your body fat to fuel a large percentage of the low intensity activity you’re doing when you’re not exercising—assuming that you have an overall calorie deficit and the kind of diet that keeps your fat-burning hormones and enzymes working right.

Unfortunately, you don’t burn all that many calories while not exercising, which explains why you can’t lose fat at a very rapid rate, even if you exercise like a fiend and diet like you love starvation. There’s only so much fat you can burn in a day, and this is determined more by your BMR and your non-exercise activity than by the amount of vigorous exercise you do, or the size of your calorie deficit. An overly large calorie deficit will mainly increase the rate of muscle and organ tissue loss, not the amount of fat burned. It may look good on the scale, but it’s not healthy and it’s one of the big reasons why so many people regain lost weight.

Practical Implications: If your main goal is losing body fat, there’s no reason to run yourself into the ground with hours of high intensity exercise, and some good reasons not to do this. You do need about 30 minutes, at least 3-5 times per week, with your heart rate up in the 70-85% of max range to get the basic health and functional fitness benefits of cardiovascular exercise. And you need a good, basic strength training routine that works all your muscle groups, at least twice per week. If you have athletic aspirations that require more training than this, you'll need to do more, of course.

Beyond that, you’ll actually burn more fat if you use any extra time you have to increase your lower intensity activity as much as possible with things like moderate walking, taking the steps when you can, and generally moving around as much as possible. The more time you spend sitting still, the more you turn off your fat burning enzymes and make fat loss harder than it needs to be.

And of course, you will still need to keep your eating under control enough to maintain a moderate calorie deficit overall.

In Thursday’s blog, I’ll talk more about Exercise, Will Power & Eating, and what the evidence tells us about how to avoid overeating when you’re physically active. To read it, click here.

What’s your experience with exercise and appetite? Are you doing a lot of high intensity exercise mainly to lose weight? Is that approach working for you, or do you end up eating more and losing less?

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KHALIA2 5/11/2019
WOW! I learned something! Thanks! Report
KHALIA2 4/8/2019
Thanks! Report
More false news? Report
Great info, Coach Dean! Thank you! Report
Thank You so much for a great article on a "Not so great article." Very informative............ Report
Great info, Coach Dean. Thank you! Report
After several years of healthy eating and exercise I now exercise because it just makes me feel good! Oh, yeah, it helps me to maintain my weight loss Report
Thank you! With this blog you have ended much of my confusion about calorie burning. Report
I like the rebuttal- thanks for that.

I also found the fact that the 'down time' exercise helps a lot to be interesting news to me! I love working out, and I find it benefits my body. When I wore my Body MediaFit last year I found that even walking around burns more calories then sitting around does.

Thanks for sharing. Report
I am so thankful for this information. I go to the gym 3 times a week and get some very high intensity exercise. Other days I just walk the dog around the neighborhood. I really thought that my walking days were more for my dogs sake than my own because the effort needed to do it is so much less than my gym workout. It is great to know that, instead, these walks are really helping me to lose body fat and not muscle. Now I will be enjoying my walks just as much as my dog! Report
the reasons where this article went wrong -were back but with an good easy to understand explanation.
Thank you! Report
This is why I don't read Time (or several other publications) anymore. Nothing like mass media to keep pushing our high cost, high consumerism lifestyle. It's the lifestyle that supports our buying fast food, point & click electronics, high-cost medications and fix-it-quick junk, and wallowing in entertainmnet. In other words, the shopping that keeps their advertisers and supporters in business. Don't count on them to tell you that exercise is actually the right thing to do for 100 other reasons, because those reasons only spend money in a narrow (relatively speaking) market.

Besides, if you're not working out in front of the tv, you're missing the ads pushed there, too, by Time affiliates. Report
"Exercise weakens your "self-control muscle"." I don't agree with that statement in the article. I find that exercise strengthens my self-control muscles! I'm glad Spark responded to this clearly misleading article. Report
The idea that "Exercise weakens your “self-control muscle"... making it harder to resist treats and snacks, and stick to your diet plan for the rest of the day" is RIDICULOUS to me! If anything, exercise bolsters my resolve to make sound nutritional choices. At my weight, exercise burns precious few calories while requiring the same amount of effort or more. The last thing I am going to do is to reach for high-fat, high-calorie, fattening food when those represent even more effort in the gym! Report
The main part missing is the Pep talks i've learned to give myself via Spark People. Yes, watching what you eat helps, resting helps, exercising especially for me helps. Most important - attitude. Thank you Spark People Report
This is one of the most informative and helpful pieces I've read. Thank you. It gives me a lot of motivation to stick with my goal to move from an "all or nothing" approach to a moderation in most things approach. Report
When I have my power workout at the gym (30 mins cardio + 30 mins ST + 15 mins ST Core Training with a coach) it does not increase my appetite. I stay hydrated while I exercise and I eat half a banana 30 mins before I leave the dressroom, seems to work fine for me that way.
A good warmup and stretching or 20 mins in the sauna afterwards keep the soreness away.
It helps me lose weight when I exercise and diet consistently but it makes me also feel happier, less tired (weird but true) and lowers my stress level. My big enemy is late bedtime, that increases my appetite and cravings.
Sure exercising won't make me thin by itself, but dieting alone will not either. Report
A very good blog. It confirms for me that I'm am doing what is best for me. I strive to get 30 minutes of cardio a week and a couple days of strength training. Anything else I get has to come from fun things I get to do such as swimming, bicycling, trail walking etc. These are some of the things that I can do now that I am in a bit healthier state. I just know I dare not set myself up for a lengthy, stringent routine that I cannot maintain for life. It needs to be something reasonable that I can fit into a busy schedule and not dread so bad that I soon give it up. It's too bad that the new media is in such a desparate need to capture an audiance that it has to resort to sensational headlines to grasp our attention. It leaves too many people with the wrong idea when they don't read the whole story. Report
Wow, I can't tell you how good this blog is. So, so informative. Thank you! Report
Thank you for this very informative blog. It helped to answer some questions I had. Report
This article was really informative. It makes so much sense. I have a very slow metabolism so it makes sense that even though I am busting my butt with cardio, I may not see results until my "down time" becomes more active. Thanks! Report
Unfortunate article. Robust exercise doesn't increase my appetite. If anything, it decreases it. Of course, we Sparkers understand the need fo rhealthy meals and snacks, perhaps the general public doesn't. Report
My personal experience... I had 10 pounds to lose and until I added more time and intensity to my exercise program, I was going nowhere. Report
It's a bit unfair to lambaste this article just as it's asinine to use it as a basis for neglecting exercise. All the article is really saying is that you don't have to go overboard with at the gym to get the results you're looking for - and I'd imagine that's pleasant news to most people here, that above all and most importantly losing weight doesn't need to be intimidating!!! Report
Thank you for clarifying the muddied waters.

What lower intensity activity can we do while we are on computer earning the SP points. Report
Everyone will find excuses, and that's just what this "Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin." article sounds like...an excuse.

Are you going to grab some light cheese products, crackers and a fresh glass of OJ after your work out, or a plate of brownies and a soda? and I don't know about you, but I feel great when I complete a workout...I feel as if I accomplished a goal towards my weight lost.. the last thing going through my mind is lack of will power! If anything, I'm empowered!
Very informative! Thanks!

I'm hoping you'll address whether or not strength training and muscle building actually speeds up metabolism, like all of the trainers will tell you. I do know one thing: before when I was dieting and doing cardio only I wasn't losing weight. But once I started strength training 2-3 times per week I starting losing weight! Weird! Report
This story was reported on by CNN and our local new chanel in case anyone missed the magazine article. So disappointing. I was so hoping the scientific community could give me a legitimate reason not to exercise tomorrow morning. Drat! Still gotta get up early! Report
I read over the article and stopped when I got to the part about not being able to resist eating more after working out. It comes down to choices. Will you choose a hamburger and fries after a workout? Or will you choose a turkey sandwich and some lower cal/fat chips or a side salad? A healthy homemade smoothie or a milkshake? You will be hungry after working out and that is a good thing! I have read that exercise is not required for weight loss, we all know that. But if you are looking to change the way you look, then yes it is needed. The person who wrote the article hates his/her workout sessions and it is clearly stated. Obviously, something is wrong there. Ugh this article irritates me, but coming from the likes of CNN...it is not surprising. I have to remember, they are the ones that called the plus size models a "controversy". Those lacking knowledge should not have that much power! Report
I have said this since the begining, and still do. Weight is nothing more than a NUMBER, and it can't be denied that you get healthier by exerciesing. So wether it helps me lose weight or not, I won't stop! Report
To my knowledge and from years of working out losing weight or toning up is 80% diet. and 20% excercise.
i agree that they may go hand in hand to make you fit however it is not necessarily true that it will make you thin or lose weight. from experience if you over eat or don't contro; your food intake while training you will not get thinner you will actually get bigger.
the secret getting toned is to know how much your body requires to maintain healthy. so it is all down to your caloric intake. first you need to know what is your metabolic base rate, there are numerous websites that can help you on this and then once you know this you can plan how much you need to eat daily to maintain the same weight.
to lose weight you will have to cut your calories below your maintenance level to lose weight. the rule of thumb is if you reduce your calorie intake by 500 a day i.e 3500 a week you will lose 1lb in weight.
excersise itself will not reduce your weight it will give you a strong healthy body , it will help with your metabolism by increasing your heart rate.

I have put this in simple terms however it is a bit more complicated and you may have to read more into the catogories of food . like carbs proteins and fats and the amounts to consume each meal to stay healthy.

staying healthy is a way of life and has to be built into your daily schedule and not just a one off diet plan to lose a few pounds here and there

Yusef Report
The consensus seems to be that the argument is flawed.
Exercise is only one part of the equation. Diet, sleep, positive image all have there parts to play in, not only weight loss, but in being healthy. Not excepting luck.

Gestalt, "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts".
Haven't read the article, or even the full blog here, but the the premise of this article is ridiculous, imo. Exercise decreases my appetite, especially for unhealthy, crappy foods. What it does is, as poster #206 wrote, is increase my "cravings" for fruits, and then later salads. "Water-rich" foods. Long ago I used to swim an hr a day, run an hr a day, work out with very heavy weights (I was a body builder) 1 & 1/2 hrs a day, then SURF 4-5 hrs a day--for 6 days a week. Not only did I NEVER gain weight, I also found I didn't eat a lot--never overate!, my weight maintained itself, and I had tons & tons of energy! I felt healthy every single day--better health than I'd ever felt. I lived like that for 2 solid years (in Hawaii). Exercise *gives back* one's LIFE! And health. It is NOT exhausting. Doing "nothing", being a couch potato--that's exhausting! And creates overeating & poor health & weight gain.

My 2 cents. Thanks Coach Dean for writing a rebuttal, responding to such absurdity! Report
Sure exercise increases my appetite, yet it changes what that appetite is for - water rich food! If I lay around, I crave fat and sweet - if I exercise I want fruit, liquids, smoothies, crunchy fresh vegatables.

While I'm exercising I stop thinking of food, I tend to get energized and after I stop I tend to keep doing OTHER activities rather than eating. I end up spending less net time eating.

The article talks as if no one ever builds strength. Of course, the first month of an activity you will be sore - but then that's why I love Spark - because others here have encouraged me to rotate activies, to change pace, to do stretches, to drink water after finishing, to do cool down exercise.....Honestly show me a person over 300 lbs that is eating tons, just because they exercise too much...all of us that have made the slow road down know that it is impossible to be happy with what you eat if the only thing you are limiting is food -- exercise is key to being able to get your calorie range in a livable standard. Report
I have a program called PACE that works along these same principles, and there was also a story on the news about this. Report
I did not read the TIME article. However with everything I read about weight loss (including SparkPeople) I always keep in mind one thing - every person is different. Literally. There is no one 'thing' that works or doesn't work for everyone. And even the same person changes over time. For me exercise makes me feel more healthy in a lot of different ways and it does help me to lose weight. Sometimes it gives me more of an appetite and sometimes it supresses it. Overall though I think it's biggest benefit is it reminds me everyday of what I am working towards. Report
When I exercise, I lose weight. Painfully slowly, but I do lose it.
When I stop exercising, I gain weight. Quickly.
Phooey. Report
I cannot believe the kind of crap that is getting published these days. Anyone who has ever followed a strict diet and exercise regimen knows that it works, unless you have some sort of extreme metabolic disorder.

I have PCO (polycystic ovaries), which makes it extra-challenging for me to lost weight. But in the last six months, I have lost over 60 pounds by cutting portions in half and exercising for at least an hour, 3-4 times a week. Simply cutting calories would not have worked quite as well, because my body is a glycogen piker. In fact I've tried dieting without the exercise many times, and the weight loss came to a stand still after the first 15 pounds. This is the first time that I've started to see such huge and lasting results, and the only new ingredient is exercise.

I've suspected for a while that responsible journalism may be a dying craft. I had no idea that it has become an oxymoron.
Odd Woman Out here - Exercise often decreases my appetite, especially in the summer. I'm sitting here with one eyebrow raised now over the whole thing. Like - what the heck? I know I need to exercise regardless of which magazine says what. For one thing, for me to NOT exercise & stretch makes my body HURT. (have some issues I think) And I've ALSO DISCOVERED, all on my own, that the more I move around OUTSIDE of my "work out", the better my weight loss results. (to prove what Coach Dean is saying) That's one reason I wear a pedometer & go by it more than logged "cardio" on how many calories I burn in a day.
Jennifer Report
When I read the article in Time I knew it was going to send fitness experts into a fit because it is not promoting gyms, personal trainers, etc. The fact of the matter is, research is showing that going to the gym for 30-60 minutes a day is not the cure all that people want it to be. And that is what the article is pointing out. The article did not say exercise is bad, it said that if that is all you do and then you sit the rest of the time, or if you eat mindlessly afterward because you "earned it" then you will not be successful. That's it. It didn't say stop exercising, it said it is not enough. Read "Move A Little, Lose A Lot" by James A. Levine.

People want a quick fix that can be fit in to their schedules and doesn't interfere with their eating habits and the article was saying think again. How is that different from what Mr. Anderson said in his rebuttal? The fact of the matter is, people have been telling me for years that the ONLY way to lose was to go to the gym every day and work out hard. One that made me hurt all over, which made me not want to go, and two it was BORING. Now I walk, garden, ride bikes, go swimming, take stretching classes, play volleyball, etc. I have lost over 40 lbs. because I have started tracking my calorie intake - eating healthy whole foods and cutting processed foods out - and getting active in my daily life. As I get more active the more I "work out" doing productive things. Report
If anything, these two articles just muddle the whole weight loss concept even more! I've been an avid exerciser for a couple of years now, but the only thing that makes me see ANY change in my weight is what I'm eating. I know that exercising keeps me heart-healthy, fit and strong, but it's never really made me thin because I've never been inactive.

So while I think the slant of the Time article is all wrong, and the attitude behind it is defeating and insulting (exercising does NOT use up all my willpower -- I'm not THAT weak).... I'm not so sure what the science behind the article and this blog has me believing any more. Report
i have recently lost 30 lbs. by walking, using the eliptical machine and tracking my food intake. i eat lots of fruit and veggies and i rarely eat out anymore since the calories and fat are so high in fast food; (and restaurant food, too!)
i did not read the article because with me, i know that exercise and diet work hand in hand.
i exercise because it feels good! i like the way my body has gone from a size 16 to a size 10 in 8 short months. exercise and diet require a firm desire to want to change your body and health. i eat every 3-4 hours things like fruit, yogurt, eggs, a turkey sandwich on whole wheat; stuff like that. plus i drink tons of water and i NEVER drink carbonation because i've never liked it.
so i think, for me, that exercise and diet work! Report
One thing I have learned is not to believe everything you read, hear, and see! First off if it wasn't for me exercising I would not have lost this 45lbs! I eat balanced meals because I cook at home. I occasionally go out to eat but I am in that gym 4-5x a week! True, if you are not overweight and trying to lose weight exercising to maintain why would you care if you are not losing weight what sense does that make? I go for what works for me. Even people who have lost hundreds of lbs they had to exercise. Yes, after a work out I am hungry as all hell but I do not run to KFC getting a bucket of chicken either. The best way is to listen to your body and do what it needs. Stupid ass article!!!! Report
The quickest way for me to loose weight is to run. Maybe it's because I still consume the same amount of calories whether I exercise or not, but I do see results. It's sad that the author feels like he needs to sensationalize the story, which gives information with a skewed perspective. Report
Actually, I thought by exercising regularly I would lose weight--but i didn't! A friend who is a runner of years told me that she didn't find it made a significant difference in her weight but in tone and that diet was more important to weight loss. I've also experienced the increase in appetite and was discouraged because I found it harder to eat moderately, even though what i was eating was "healthy". I will still exercise for overall health and tone but I don't have any delusions that it is a cure-all for weight loss! Report
I have found that resistance training tends to increase my appetite while endurance training moderates it. Having a high GI carb, protein, and a bit of fruit within an hour of my workout is all I need to turn off the "I need to eat everything I see" switch.

I am a personal trainer and weight loss coach. I have talked to many gym members who don't believe that they need any nutritional guidance because they, "try to eat healthy most of the time". For the vast majority of women this means they often eat under 1200 calories of processed food. No, they won't make progress either! Yes, you're gonna get hungry if you are starving yourself AND exercising on top of that!! Then they come back and sign up with me!! You can't starve and exercise yourself to health. Our bodies don't work that way!

The author of the TIME article went the other way - treating himself to garbage because he worked out - hence he hasn't lost any weight. It's not rocket science. Unfortunately we have too much really bad information out there (aka the Time article) and people aren't getting the facts! The commonly held belief is that exercise is all it takes to burn the fat. I can't tell you how many times I've heard things like, "I did an extra 10 minutes today so I get to splurge and go out to dinner." Uhm, not if you want to lose weight you don't!!

The diet industry is a $30 Billion a year industry for a reason. I think they print articles like this just to keep Americans fat and the advertisers and pharmaceutical industries in business. Report
If Mr. Clouds assumptions were correct the fattest people on the planet would be professional athletes. Report
I have been exercising to lose weight. At first I was losing and now I am not, even though I have upped my workout to 60 min 6 x wk. It has been daunting. At first I thought I wasn't getting enough calories... now I wonder if I'm getting too many. Not sure where to go or what to do about this stand still. It's like my body doesn't want to let go. I don't find that I am more hungry or have different cravings, so I started looking a sodium being the culprit. Report