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Why I don’t care about the Time article “Why exercise won’t make you thin”

By Michelle May, M.D.

blocks - spells out exerciseLast week’s Time Magazine article Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin generated a lot of discussion around water coolers, fitness centers, and health blogs. People were surprised, outraged, smug, and/or relieved.

I was none of the above. For ten years I’ve been teaching doctors and other health care professionals to separate discussions with their patients about exercise from discussions about weight management.

Why?

  • When you tie them together, exercise becomes punishment for eating. Punishment doesn’t feel good so it leads people yo-yo exercise the way they yo-yo diet.
  • Some people exercise to earn the right to eat or pay penance when they ate something they define as “bad.” (For the record, I don’t believe in good and bad food.) That feeds into their negative thoughts about exercise, and about themselves.
  • When they compare the number of calories they ate to the amount of time they’d have to spend on the treadmill to burn it off, they may decide exercise is futile.
  • Besides, no one can accurately compute everything they eat and every calorie they burn. It would require too much precious time, energy, and attention.
  • General physical activity has a significant effect on our daily energy needs so focusing only on exercise when discussing “calories in vs. calories out” ignores a significant opportunity for those who are unable or unwilling to excercise.
  • When people equate exercise with weight loss and don’t see results, they quit exercising. Exercise is good for everybody-whether they are thin or obese, and whether they are trying to lose weight or not.

One of my girlfriends felt that John Cloud, the author of the Time article, clearly didn’t get the concept of a healthy lifestyle. Who can blame him when there are so many confusing messages out there. My advice? It’s simple really:

  1. Look for opportunities to increase your general activity level each day
  2. Start with small doses of exercise that are comfortable and gradually increase as your fitness level improves
  3. Try different activities to discover what you love to do
  4. Ignore articles or advice that tie exercise and weight management together (positively or negatively).

It is indisputable that exercise is good for you and will make you feel better. That’s all that matters.

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

12 Comments

  1. Pilbara Pink says:

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I exercise most days and I have lost a lot of weight. However, the two are NOT connected in my mind and I get so frustrated with people trying to make a connection where none exists. I lost weight by changing the way I eat. I exercise because I feel good, I enjoy moving my body and it keeps me healthy. No one in their right mind would suggest brushing my teeth helped me lose weight, yet I do that every day too! Sadly too many people are looking for reasons to justify their staying stuck where they are rather than listening to simple messages – such as using smaller plates, eating vegetables and fruit at the start of a meal, waiting to working out what they really want – water or food, if food then what? – rather than starting to eat and seeing if they can feel better!

  2. Awesome Pilbara. You are a wonderful example and inspiration! I love your comment: “No one in their right mind would suggest brushing my teeth helped me lose weight, yet I do that every day too!” To build on that thought, even though brushing your teeth doesn’t effect your weight, you still do it regularly simply to take good care of yourself!

  3. Keri says:

    I saw this article and then had a client tell me she read it too. I am a personal trainer and she had a retest coming up which consisted of a weigh in, measurements, strength tests, etc. She told me she knows she’s gained weight despite the fact that she’s been working out twice a week. She then told me how she read the article and how she thought she should stop exercise because she’s gaining more weight than she was before. I had to rid her of her ignorance and tell her that one of the main points of the article indirectly talks about how exercising gets your metabolism going and makes you hungry. A lot of people feel like they deserve a treat after working out and tend to eat even more because of it. I told her eating healthy and exercising go hand in hand. People who eat healthy foods, proper portions, and exercise stay fit. When you feel hungry after exercising, having an apple will crave that feeling, not two hamburgers from McDonald’s. She understood what I meant, but I think she, like many people try to find any excuse not to change their lifestyle into a healthy one, just as that author did.
    I also agree that exercise has so many benefits beyond weight loss. It fights disease, improves your mood, allows for better sleep at night, and it can make you have more energy throughout your day!
    It just goes to show that fitness and health professionals need to keep educating the misinformed. Nice blog!

  4. Ted Rogers says:

    this is another example why we have been promoting for more than 30 years the concept of ‘active’… exercise should be used by those individuals who are pursuing a level of athleticism. But for the average, health-ier focused individual we need to get active in our daily routines. Amazing benefits happen when our daily routines are filled with high activities… standing when answering the phones, walking a little further and faster, taking the stairs as a habit not an occasion. Life’s just not that hard when you create a health-ier attitude for daily action! Ted Rogers aka The Fit Geezer

  5. Ted Rogers says:

    and speaking of ‘brushing your teeth’… remember this is a perfect opportunity to do toe raisers and mini-squats to get your ‘high active day’ started on a great note!

  6. Brien Shamp says:

    I have been in the health & wellness industry for 19 years and it is true that exercise is clearly not the the ideal model for weight loss. However, exercise is important for many benefits: strength, posture, performance, function with activities of daily living, core strength, balance, bone density and more. One’s nutrition & lifestyle, the mental side of the equation and the spiritual side must all be taken into consideration if one desires long term weight loss.
    Brien Shamp
    http://www.optimalfitnesslifestyle.com

  7. Elizabeth Likes M.A. says:

    Michelle,
    I liked your blog about the Time article. I agree that exercise and weight loss should be untied. Liz

  8. I see the point of the Time Magazine and actually it’s true that some people see phisical exercise as a way to gain credit for eating. But I cannot agree on the conclusion of the article:”When you tie them together, exercise becomes punishment for eating”. In my opinion the whole discussion is around the word “balance”. If you want to have a wellness and helathy lifestyle you need to have an armonic balance between body, mind and spirit. From this point of view, the phisical exercise is for sure one of the pillar for a wellness lifestyle (http://www.technogym.com/gb/viewdoc.asp?co_id=1324&la=2&remember=yes). Of course, you need to have a balanced and regular approach to physical exercise exactly as you need to have a balanced and regular approach to eating. So bottom line: let’s keep on doing phisical exercise!

  9. Thanks everyone; it is great to see so many people on board with the concept of exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle, not as a means to an end.
    Francesco, for many people, exercise has become punishment for eating. I like the comment that exercise is one of the pillars of a healthy lifestyle – it shouldn’t be a trade-off: “If I eat this, then I have to do that.” I’ll post a new blog soon to show you what I mean based on an article I just got.

  10. Sue says:

    It seems like everyone who’s ever been paid to sweat has “weighed in” on this article, but yours is one of the best responses I have seen! I lost the most weight (50 pounds) when I wasn’t on a Weight Loss Program, but rather was trying to improve my scores on video games. It’s funny how many of the angry rebuttals to the Time article actually say much the same things it did. Love your blog, too.

  11. Sue, you are so right. Like the author of the Time article, many people have very negative thoughts and attitudes about exercise so our job is to unlink it from weight loss and focus on all the amazing positive outcomes.
    Further, I believe we must do the same thing with our messages about eating. We need to stop talking about “bad” food, avoidance, control, and other uninspiring concepts. For the thousands of people I have worked with, guilt is one of their most powerful triggers for overeating. And paying penance with exercise does NOT motivate them to become more active.
    Instead, I believe our messages must be consistently positive and focus on enjoying delicious, nutrient-rich foods fearlessly and mindfully, and moving our bodies regularly for energy, joy, and the ability to live a full life.

  12. Janelle says:

    Now we know who the sensbile one is here. Great post!

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