The Latest in Brilliant Reporting from Time

Following their smear piece on American farmers earlier this month, Timemagazine is now working to convince readers that exercise doesn’t actually lead to weight loss.

Let me repeat: Time magazine wants you to believe that exercise won’t help you lose weight.

I was so shocked when I read that hypothesis that I actually read the entire article from front to back. I suppose I’m particularly interested in this type of writing because of my ongoing “half man challenge” and heightened interest in my own personal health and well-being, and perhaps am even a little more suspect of Time than usual because of the Walsh hit piece.

Author John Cloud posits that even though he works out regularly and apparently consistently, he’s maintained his current weight, and more frustratingly his “spare tire” around the midsection. I can sympathize with frustration about a soggy midsection. Be that as it may, I’ve been hitting the gym thrice weekly for about three weeks now and have seen significant results already; so much so that I’m actually trading down a size in my Wranglers this week… Hooray for small victories, right?

Cloud provides a raft of scientific and anecdotal evidence to back up his theory, sharing a variety of studies that found people who exercise may be preconditioned to actually consume more food than they would have otherwise without the additional activity. His theory goes on to suggest that our biggest problem isn’t that we don’t “work out,” but that we aren’t on our feet as consistently as we were a generation ago. That point is one I definitely won’t argue, because I’ve made it myself numerous times.

Here’s the problem with Cloud’s reporting, however: weight loss is fairly “simple,” even though it’s definitely not easy. The body of research consistently backs the notion that weight loss is, in it’s most basic form, a function of calories in, calories out. If you consistently have a deficit in that function, i.e. you expend more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. Now here’s the tricky part. As I learned first hand last week with my trainers at Baseline Fitness, your body burns different calories differently based on your level of activity. Right now I’m more concerned about losing pounds of fat than I am about losing weight. In fact, I expect to actually gain some pounds of lean tissue in this process because my focus is on strength training first and cardio second, while most weight loss programs are just the opposite.

In taking an assessment known in the shorthand as my “VO2″ (pronounced simply Vee Oh Two, like it looks), Kate at Baseline put me on a treadmill and measured my body’s capacity to process oxygen in and out of the body. This calculation allowed her to graph how many calories my body was burning at a given heart rate, and how many of those calories were fat calories versus calories from carbohydrates. What I found is that for my current level of fitness, I need to maintain a heart rate of 130-155 beats per minute to maximize my fat burning. Right now that means a leisurely pace on the treadmill of roughly three miles per hour. As I get more fit, that rate will increase, but basically if I take off running, I’ll be burning mostly carbs, and very little fat.

Which is actually why the phenomenon Cloud laments is occurring. Exercise, in other words, isn’t failing the author or the poor unfortunate souls described in the essay. The exerciser doesn’t have all the necessary information at his disposal. A few years ago I was interested in losing weight, got a gym membership, and worked out for a few weeks. My exercise regimen was more intensive cardio than what I’m doing now, but I saw little result. Two reasons that pop to mind now are simply that I wasn’t burning much fat because my heart rate was too high, and I wasn’t tracking my food intake.

That’s the second area where Cloud doesn’t really place enough emphasis. He mentions that most “gym rats” overcompensate for their workout by stopping and eating on the way home from the gym. For me, I’m tracking every calorie I eat using the LiveStrong app on my iPhone. I know that my daily calorie “budget” is roughly 2,300 calories, and that if I consistently stay within that budget, I’ll lose weight. I also know that by focusing on strength training and working primarily in my fat burning “zone,” I’ll burn fat rather than carbs meaning I’ll continue enjoying results.

It may not be easy, but my own research and experience repudiates a lot of what Cloud reported in the Time piece. I think when reading this article, far less informed readers will either use the article to justify their own desire not to exercise, or for those currently hitting the gym to start a weight loss program, they’ll “fall off the wagon.”

My other big concern, furthermore, is with the implications Cloud makes about food in general. His final pitch says basically “it isn’t about exercise, it’s about the food you eat.” On the heels of the Walsh smear piece praising everything organic, sustainable, locally-grown, rBST-free, etc., I think we know what foodsTime wants us to be eating.