The TIME Magazine Exercise Debate

Story by Meredith Nelson / September 2, 2009

The Great Exercise Debate –

Is all this exercise really making us fat?


In the August 10 issue of TIME Magazine, columnist John Cloud expanded on his theory that exercise is the culprit making us fat. His “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin,” makes the assumption that the belief “if you exercise, you will lose weight” is erroneous.  Not only does he state that exercise serves no purpose in a weight loss regimen, but that exercise is actually making us fatter!

Partly because his own personal experiences support this theory – although Mr. Cloud exercises at least five days a week in the gym, he still carries more weight than he would like around his gut – and partly because, despite the increased numbers of people who say they exercise regularly, the incidence of obesity has risen dramatically, the author proclaims that the role of exercise in weight loss is “wildly overstated.”  He does, however, indicate positive effects of exercise in lowering the risk of many diseases – cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and others.  Here is where his credibility ends with me, as he goes on to explain how, in his mind, exercising to lose weight is a worthless effort and waste of time.

Mr. Cloud states that the reason exercise may actually be making us fat is three-fold:

1)      Exercising stimulates hunger and causes us to overeat.

2)      By using up our allotted amount of self-control to force ourselves to spend hours in the gym, we have no willpower left with which to resist the temptation of tasty treats and snacks.

3)      We compensate for exerting so much physical activity through exercise that we reduce the amount of normal activity we get throughout the day.

This article has sparked numerous reactions and rebuttals from the fitness profession.  Researchers and academics have responded in several fitness industry journals, group exercise instructors and private trainers are mumbling, and fitness enthusiasts are questioning their efforts.  Personally, my own experiences are a testimony to the value of exercise – from physical, mental, health risk-reducing, and weight maintenance standpoints.


Let’s take a look at Mr. Cloud’s three assumptions introduced above.

1)  Exercising stimulates hunger and causes us to overeat.

The first part of this is true.  Exercise does – and should – stimulate us to eat.  Although many people report a temporary suppressed appetite immediately following exercise, there is no way we can burn calories without experiencing hunger.  But it’s WHAT we eat after we exercise, and how much of it, that causes the problem.  The problem is that many of us cannot figure out exactly what it is that we need to consume following exercise.  For example, many exercisers follow their workout with a bottle of Gatorade, not realizing that many bottles contain more than one serving of the beverage inside, and therefore extra calories may be consumed.

So, although the Gatorade is effective in replacing lost electrolytes (which shouldn’t even be necessary unless one is exercising in extreme heat, or for over an hour), one would be better off consuming a small amount of complex carbohydrates in combination with a bit of protein and a trace of healthy fats (think a teaspoon of peanut butter on a slice of whole grain bread, perhaps with a banana, for example) to help encourage protein synthesis and reload the muscles with glycogen, to be ready for the next workout.

Of course, the fact still remains that if one consumes more calories than one burns, the excess calories will be stored as fat.  The above “recovery meal” won’t do any good in helping one lose weight if the overall calories being taken in are more than those being burned.

2)  By using up our allotted amount of self-control to force ourselves to spend hours in the gym, we have no self-control left with which to resist the temptation of tasty treats and snacks.

This is true to some extent – when we are very strict on ourselves in some areas, it may become more difficult to be regimented and disciplined in another area.  That is why I recommend that everything – exercising, eating, and drinking – be done in moderation. For a healthy, permanent weight loss, we don’t need to force ourselves to spend hours in the gym.  We need to increase the low intensity exercise we do throughout the day.  This is what burns fat.  High-intensity exercise burns muscle glycogen and is good for improving performance – for those that are interested in performing a particular sport – for and burning calories.  But low intensity activity – and lots of it – is key in losing fat.

So that addresses the issue of self-control needed to spend hours in the gym.  But what about the self-control you need to say no to that muffin that would be so delicious with your morning coffee?  That candy bar when you’re hungry?  Even that tasty chocolate protein drink?

In my humble opinion, the ability to resist such temptations is based on an individual’s education of nutrition, understanding of portion control, and the ability to think ahead and plan.  By reading labels and having an understanding of calories from carbohydrates, fat, and protein, along with the list of ingredients and what you can actually learn from that list, one can make informed decisions about what they are putting in their mouths.  Pre-determining the portion size you will eat – eating half the muffin, or dividing your restaurant dinner into two portions and taking half of it home as opposed to eating everything on the plate – can drastically reduce the number of calories you take in.  And by simply putting some thought into your day, scheduling meals, and having something available to eat in those “emergency” situations where you may be stuck in traffic or don’t have time for lunch, can thwart the temptation to head for the drive-through.

3)  We compensate for exerting so much physical activity through exercise that we reduce the amount of normal activity we get throughout the day.

Well, once again, my humble opinion is quite different from the author’s.  Au contraire, Mr. Cloud.  Do you really think that if you gave up your hour at the gym everyday, you would be less inclined to sit watching television in the evening?  Or that you would spend less time at the computer compiling your thoughts for next week’s article?  Do you honestly believe that as a by-product of spending less time on the treadmill, you may  actually ride a bike to the grocery, the neighborhood pool, or even to work?

I highly doubt that.  Our society has turned into one of convenience when unnecessary.  We drive when we can walk to get there faster.  We surf channels on television instead of getting outside to walk on the beach.  We take the elevators and not the steps.  All because it takes less effort and time – not because we’ve exhausted ourselves in the gym.  In fact, most people I know who exercise regularly claim it gives them energy to keep up with their kids, require less sleep, and get more done.

In closing I would like to point out perhaps the most substantial argument against Mr. Cloud’s assertion, and that is the findings of years of research performed by the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR). According to the NWCR website, the study is the “largest prospective investigation of long-term successful weight loss maintenance.”  The NWCR was developed in 1994 in efforts to identify the characteristics of individuals who had succeeded in achieving and maintaining a weight-loss of at least 30 pounds. (On a personal note, I myself have been a participant study since the inception of the NWCR.  The findings, some of which you will see below, mirror my own strategies and efforts in losing and maintaining my weight.) Annual questionnaires are distributed to participants to help determine the behavioral and psychological characteristics of the subjects, as well as the strategies they use to maintain their weight losses.  Over the last fifteen years, 94% of the study participants report that part of their success has been due to an increase in physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being walking (another plug for the above-mentioned low-intensity activity).  Additionally, 90% of the participants report exercising for an hour every day.

Of course, proper nutrition is crucial as well – 98% of the NWCR participants indicate that they modified their food intake in some way to lose weight. The bottom line is that weight loss and maintenance are a balance of calories in and calories out.  Exercise is a necessary part of weight loss, but it doesn’t stop there.  Daily activity – whether throughout the day or for an hour in the gym – is important for not only losing weight, but also for overall physical and mental health and wellness.

Meredith Nelson, M.Ed, is the owner of PrimeTime Fitness, Inc, on Sullivan’s Island.  Offering group fitness classes, PrimeTime Spin, private yoga, personal training, and monthly gym membership, Meredith divides her time between the gym on Sullivan’s Island and limited in-home training on Daniel Island, where she resides along with her husband Mark.  Meredith can be reached with your fitness questions at 883-0101, or