Exercise: it’s torture, I tell you


Sometimes you have wonder about “conventional wisdom” (and what makes it different from “actual wisdom”). Until about 40 or so years ago, it was conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t exercise to lose fat because exercise tended to make you more hungry. Then the CW changed to “you must become a hamster on a wheel” — without any evidence to back it up. Now it appears that we may be undergoing a much-needed correction.

I only recently discovered (h/t Pat) a great New York Magazine article from 2007 recounting the state of science in this area, called The Scientist and the Stairmaster. Naturally, it’s by Gary Taubes. (I think I’m going to start calling him The Great Gary Taubes, or TGGT for short, much as I’ve shortened GCBC.) Here’s a snippet, but as always, it’s worth reading the whole thing:

Just last month, the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine … suggested that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week is necessary to “promote and maintain health.” What they didn’t say, though, was that more physical activity will lead us to lose weight. Indeed, the best they could say about the relationship between fat and exercise was this: “It is reasonable to assume that persons with relatively high daily energy expenditures would be less likely to gain weight over time, compared with those who have low energy expenditures. So far, data to support this hypothesis are not particularly compelling.” In other words, despite half a century of efforts to prove otherwise, scientists still can’t say that exercise will help keep off the pounds.

And now I notice that Time jumped on the new-CW bandwagon last month with Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.

Do I exercise? Well, yeah, but I have to fight the hunger it brings on. I lift weights and such to increase muscle mass, stave off loss of bone density (two decades ago I would have said “build bone density”, sigh), increase my VO2 max, and just generally feel more vital. But I’ve given up on endless medium-intensity cardio to lose weight — because insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Speaking of doing the same thing over and over again, what do you suppose that grainy photo at the top represents? In 2006, as part of the XML Summer School events (this year’s School is coming up fast! sign up now!), I had the privilege of going on a special tour of the Oxford Castle, which had recently opened to visitors. It was put to use as a prison for many centuries, and it was nasty in there. The “terrible prison conditions” they talk about on the website included this primitive Stairmaster, with which they’d punish prisoners by making them climb for eight hours a day.

I can take a hint.

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