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Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin (time.com)
89 points by emontero1 on Aug 9, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 104 comments

The article itself it insightful. But, brother hackers, can we allow an article whose title is a blatant lie to be voted to the top of Hacker News?

Running is exercise.

Running 1600 meters, on average, burns 124 calories for a man. ("Energy Expenditure of Walking and Running", Syracuse Uni study). This only takes a few minutes.

Even if a person is taking in massively more calories than their body needs -- let's say, overeating by 1000 calories a day -- they could burn it all off with a few miles of jogging. Increase the amount of running they do still further, and you won't find anyone who will seriously suggest that they won't get thinner.

Or how do you think that cross-country runners got so skinny?

Olympic marathoners?


So ...

Exercise CAN make you thin; thus, the statement that it won't is incorrect.

1,000 calories, considering the modern possibilities, isn't that much. I mean, that's a bit less than two slices of toast with Nutella.

Weight loss programs have to focus on preempting and managing appetite. There's a wealth of studies connecting exercise to increased appetite (c.f. OP), especially focused, running-at-the-gym, doing-penance-for-those-donuts exercise. (Low-level activity—walking around, say—doesn't seem to provoke the same uptick in hunger. But it also burns way, way less calories.)

Your counterfactual assumes that the runner isn't more likely to eat an additional 2,000 calories, which is to say, they're already managing their appetite. If you can manage your appetite, then go for a goddamn run already. You'll be happier for it. If you're not managing your appetite, work on that—exercise will not help you lose weight until you do.

There's a great book—The End Of Overeating—which details the intersection of modern food science, evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, and human physiology. If you're interested, give it a go.

(BTW, bringing up elite athletes doesn't help the discussion—elite athletes regularly have 1.5-2 times the VO² max of even extremely fit people. Hell, five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain could circulate 7L of oxygenated blood per minute compared with the 5-6L of his competitors and 3-4L for the fitter of us regular people. Human physiology has a statistical distribution, and bringing up people many standard deviations from the mean doesn't help any of us regular schmucks. My mutant power certainly does not involve my metabolism.)

1,000 calories, considering the modern possibilities, isn't that much. I mean, that's a bit less than two slices of toast with Nutella.

Yes, it is VERY difficult to out-train a bad diet. There is an example I use with friends, which is if you drink 5 pints of beer, you'll need to run 10 miles to burn that off (really). Have a pizza or a kebab on the way home, another 10 miles. Have a fry-up for breakfast, another 10 miles. So even if you ran a Marathon tomorrow, with your hangover, you've still gained fat from one Friday night. And you're doing again on Saturday night too.

On the subject, of athletes, everyone at the top of any sport is a genetic freak. That's not to disparage the effort they put in. But hey, Michael Phelps didn't get his extraordinarily long armspan from training. He didn't get his flipper-shaped feet from training. He was born with them. And he was born with an extraordinary metabolism too.

I agree that it's difficult to out-train a bad diet. But

1) Remember, we're counting the difference between what you need to eat and what you do eat. So although crazily irresponsible people doubtless are regularly eating 5000+ calorie diets, day in and day out, the amount they need to burn off to zero out would then be around 2000+ calories.

2) Impractical is not impossible. Even if you OVEREAT by 3000 calories per day, if you spent all day running and resting/drinking water from running, you could do it.

Exercise CAN make people thin. ;) I'm not saying that for a given someone, you couldn't eat enough to take yourself out of contention, but the answer to "Can exercise make you thin?" is "yes."

What I object to most in the article title is the implication that people are working hard, but somehow wasting their effort.

"Oh, the problem is that you've been getting up an hour early every morning to run and run and run, and have been undoing all of your hard work by eating Hardees Thickburgers 3 times a day!"

If you have the self-discipline to run regularly, you have the self-discipline necessary to complement it with the MINIMUM of dietary caution necessary to let it work for you.

It's important to distinguish weight loss from fat loss. We want the latter - the former in itself is not particularly desirable (except perhaps for ice fishing).

- When I exercise, I tend to build muscle (and sore legs).

- When I eat less, I tend to lose some weight.

- When I exercise but eat more, weight goes up - because I'm gaining muscle.

So far, so good. But the above is completely meaningless. What really matters is:

- If I'm exercising a lot and eating reasonably, my weight goes up, BUT my %BF (percent body fat) goes down, because I'm gaining more muscle than fat.

- If I'm doing low-intensity exercise and eating sparingly, my weight goes down, but my %BF remains stable.

- If I exercise like crazy and eat very little, my weight goes down and my % BF goes down. This happens rarely because it requires inhuman willpower.

The point of this (admittedly anecdotal) chart is that weight change and %BF change are NOT correlated. In particular, the way one achieves a low body fat is:

1. Increase muscle, lowering %BF.

2. Lower overall weight, causing net fat loss AND muscle loss, probably increasing %BF slightly.

3. GOTO 1.

If you lose more %BF on step 1 than you gained on step 2, you win. This zig-zag is what body builders do, because it's nearly the only method that works. And step 2 is very diet-sensitive, and rather finicky.

And that is why the article sounded stupid to me. The study, in particular, of women who exercised intensively compared to those who didn't. I hope they measured % body fat in that study, because it's the only thing that matters when talking about obesity.

When the article says something like "Everybody lost a bit of weight, but some of the exercisers gained weight! So exercise doesn't make you thin." That's crap. "Lean" is a measure of % body fat, not total body mass. The exercisers probably decreased %BF if their weight remained stable. In other words, they probably look better now than they did.

if you spent all day running and resting/drinking water from running, you could do it.

Well, I am a Marathon runner. I know what burning 3000 extra calories in a day feels like. There is no way I could do that every day, and the average person is a LOT less fit than me.

Exercise is important for many reasons, but fat loss is mostly about the diet.

1000 calories for toast with Nutella!?

I assume by calories you mean kilocalories in which case you are probably looking around 1000 KJ (kilojoules) for two slices of toast with Nutella. That's around 239 (kilo)calories.

Wheat bread's about 75 calories a slice, so 150 for just the bread. I don't know about you, but I put it on thick—maybe a serving-and-a-half per slice, which according to the Nutella website is 570 calories. So 720 total. Not 1,000, but closer to it than 239.

Really? here are the numbers I just got for comparison off the containers (both are serving size 2 Tbsp)

   Nutella:                190 calories, 11g fat, 21g sugar, 3g protein
   Organic Peanut Butter:  210 calories, 18g fat, 2g sugar, 8g protein
Nutella isn't really that bad. I'll sometimes eat it on bread before a long run.

A serving size is 2Tbsp, which is what I put on a serving size of bread (1 slice) when I'm paying attention to how much I'm putting on. Like I said, though, I tend to slather it on (mainly because Nutella is so damn good)—so I'm really getting 1.5-2 servings of Nutella per slice.

Two slices—75kcal * 2—and a hunk of Nutella—190kcal * 3—is way the hell more calories than I should be eating as a snack (720kcal). Veeeery easy to go overboard.

Okay wow I had no idea that Nutella was that high. That's freaking insane. You could have 2 and a half Snickers for that.

If you think of exercise as 30 minutes a day 3 times a week then diet is by far more important. But, at extreme levels of exercise it's hard to eat enough calories to keep from losing weight.

At the true elite level Michael Phelps is fueled by 12,000 calorie a day diet, eating that much food just hard. Think 60 Twinkies a day plus a 3000 calorie diet.

But even 1/2 that and most people would still have problems keeping up for months at a time. The average human body could do 8 hours of exercise a day 7 days a week for years after training. So we don't really need to look at the true extremes of human capability to find a level of exercise that will balance all, but the most ridicules diet.

PS: If you are going to work a desk job, then nights and weekend exercise is not going to cover a horrible diet.

> At the true elite level Michael Phelps is fueled by 12,000 calorie a day diet, eating that much food just hard. Think 60 Twinkies a day plus a 3000 calorie diet.

Even at much less intense levels, it's challenging to eat as much as necessary to maintain weight if you have a healthy diet. When I was training 100 miles a week (not all that much for a serious cyclist) I ate around 3300 calories a day. If my diet included stuff like Big Macs and triple mochas with a muffin, that would be easy. But if you aren't in the habit of eating lots of processed and fast foods, it's actually quick a bit of work to eat that much.

It is not incorrect because it does not claim that it can't make you thin.

All it claims is that inside the article is an explanation of why exercise will not make you thin. Which there is. Even if you disagree with it, there is still one. Even if it was "because exercise has 8 characters and words with 8 characters are bad" it would still be an accurate title.

It's not a lie or a blatant lie.

Or how do you think that cross-country runners got so skinny?

My guess is that the causation is reversed. Skinny people find running more enjoyable. I used to enjoy running cross-country when I was younger. As I've gotten older, I've filled out. I'm not fat, but I'm no longer thin and scrawny. As a result, I find running much more straining. I can feel it pound away on my knees, and I tend to get shin splints pretty quickly. So now I no longer run. I enjoy exercise - biking, soccer, etc. - but pounding pavement for 3 miles a day is no longer enjoyable.

Exercise CAN make you thin; thus, the statement that it won't is incorrect.

The article does not claim exercise can't make you thin. It claims it won't make you thin. No matter how many calories you burn, your body will send you overwhelming urges to eat more, to compensate for the lost calories. These urges - known as hunger - are incredibly difficult to resist, and thus you will not get any thinner.

Only a stubbornly dense reading of the title is a lie, like the cliched way imaginary characters like Spock or Data take statements literally.

What calculator are you using? 1000/124 = 8

Eight miles is more than a couple.

Bloops -- changed to "a few".

At a leisurely 10 minutes per mile, that's 1.3.. hours of running. Well, overeating by a thousand calories is a lot.

But even assuming you burned 0 other calories, still, the argument holds.

You can, indeed, get thin by exercise.

If one stubbornly insisted on ONLY getting thin by running, and steadfastly refused to take responsibility for what went into one's piehole, STILL -- it would be possible, if perhaps impractical, depending on just how irresponsible one's eating habits were and how much free time they had to exercise.

But plenty of people get up early enough, for instance, to run for an hour. So it's not only doable, but EMINENTLY doable.

Your argument assumes invariant appetite and metabolism. Weight regulation is complex; see Gary Taubes's book _Good Calories, Bad Calories_ or this article: http://sethroberts.net/about/whatmakesfoodfattening.pdf

Running an hour a day is a dicey proposition because of the possibility of injury. I would say it's impossible for the vast majority of people who are overweight, no matter how carefully they worked up to it. You'd have to be skinny, have excellent form, and not have any unfixable pre-existing injuries or weaknesses.

running an hour at a 10 minute mile (6 mph) is unlikely to lead to injury.

Over forty miles per week with no rest days == too much for most people, way too much if you're overweight. Sure, some people do a lot more, but there are always exceptions. Every running trail and running club is disproportionately populated by people who have better resistance to injury. Steady running is one of the most challenging things you can do to your joints. (I find doing fartlek over a given distance a lot easier to recover from than steady running.) Running slowly isn't necessarily better, since a lot of injuries are caused by the up-and-down impact, and there's a limit to the extent you can reduce the up-and-down.

The obvious solution is cross-training, but there aren't many things you can do by yourself that burn calories as well as running.

Let's not forget the role that Nike has played in this by popularizing the running shoe based on perpetuating the notion that padded soles reduce injury when in fact the effect is the exact opposite.

Okay, so first, I'm certainly not saying every sedentary person should hop up and run for an hour tomorrow. I'm saying you can get there in a month or two of reasonable effort.

And, if you'd prefer, get on a bike for an hour instead. It's lower impact, and you'll burn at least as many calories as running.

Okay, so first, I'm certainly not saying every sedentary person should hop up and run for an hour tomorrow. I'm saying you can get there in a month or two of reasonable effort.

I'm not an expert, but I read what they say. This is way, way out of line with what any experienced running trainer would tell a beginner. Not even a beginner who was, say, an extremely fit swimmer. Definitely not a sedentary beginner. You have to give your connective tissue time to adapt to the peculiar stresses of running. (Plus, beginners are going to have crappy form and inflict more punishment on themselves than necessary.) By the numbers most people use, it would be very aggressive, but possibly reasonable for some people, to ramp up to 42 miles per week in one month from a base of ~29 miles per week or in two months from a base of ~20 miles per week. And that's pretty aggressive. Trying to get to 42 miles per week in two months from a sedentary state would leave basically everybody injured except genetic freaks or people with a previous adaptation to high-mileage running.

If you're starting from a sedentary state with no weight problem or existing injuries, you might start with eight miles per week and ramp up to 42 miles per week over nine months. That's a 10% increase in mileage every other week, and it assumes you don't screw up and get hurt, which many beginners do.

And, if you'd prefer, get on a bike for an hour instead. It's lower impact, and you'll burn at least as many calories as running.

That might be more reasonable (if you can find someplace nearby where you can ride in a fast, sustained way without blowing through stoplights or terrorizing pedestrians.) I don't have personal experience with ramping up bike training (I just ride to work once in a while) but from what I hear it doesn't require as much care as running.

Nearly every high school cross-country runner goes from zero to five days a week of running instantly. I built up to over 62 miles and six days of training a week in the first season and I know plenty of others who have done the same. Not only that, but I did the same thing again 15 years later and 60 pounds heavier.

The human body really is designed to run. Most injuries are due to pushing to go too fast. If you keep your heart rate at about 60-70% of max, you'd be surprised how quickly you can ramp up mileage without hurting yourself. The key is to never push yourself so hard that you feel like you couldn't do a workout the next day.

Cycling works almost as well from a cardio-vascular standpoint, too. It's not weight-bearing, though, so it won't help improve your bone density or strengthen your joints like running will. You could probably compensate by doing a bit of weight training. In the end, it comes down to getting off your butt and moving.

"aren't many things you can do by yourself that burn calories as well as running."

All activity's at your aerobic limit burn the same number of calories. You can run, dance, row, weigh lift, or just bail hay, and you will encounter the same limit. It's basically a question of how much oxygen you can absorb though the lungs and dump into your blood stream.

That's true, but you have to work pretty hard on a bike to get your pulse rate as high as you do by running. (I've done a fair bit of cycling and running over the years). For an inexperienced cyclist, tired leg muscles tend to limit the effort before their heart and lungs do. And it's always tempting to take a rest on the downhills. So I reckon in most cases, you burn significantly fewer calories per hour cycling than you do running. On the other hand most people are capable of cycling for say two hours (if they have time) whereas it takes a lot of training to be able to run for two hours.

It's also a question of motivation. I'm sure I burn more calories mountain biking given the fact that several times I've gotten to the top of a hill and then puked. I've never pushed myself that hard running.

"... running an hour at a 10 minute mile (6 mph) is unlikely to lead to injury. ..."

Over short distances maybe, but longer distances? Your modern western person isn't even setting enough time to do 20 minutes of exercise per day let alone moving a 10 minute mile. To move this speed for periods of time requires serious effort. As for injury well it depends how far, how long. I know, I've been doing 10Km on a regular basis for 770Km this year across a cross-country course and I'll tell you now, moving at the speed you suggest will cause damage unless you're conditioned, fit and motivated.

You can ride a bike instead of running.

Or go for a swim. In fact I'd suggest either of those over pounding your feet against the concrete.

> So it's not only doable, but EMINENTLY doable.

I'll bite - how many hours/week do you run?

The article states that people compensate for increased bouts of exercise by either consuming more calories or decreased activity later in the day. It goes on to cite a number of studies showing this effect.

Basically, if someone runs a few miles, they will reward themselves with a treat that negates or even overcompensates for the calories expended. Failing that, they will do less physical things later in the day... sit and watch TV instead of working in the garden for example.

Sure, some people have the willpower to go for a run and not eat more to compensate, but the majority of people do not. Any those that do might not even notice that they decrease later exertions to compensate.

I'm trying to lose weight right now. Actually, I'm trying to get in the best shape of my life, so that I feel better physically and enjoy the sports I play more.

I've been losing about 1/2 pound per week for most of this year, while spending about a half hour per day in the pool, and maybe another hour on the basketball court.

I took a two weeks off and went to France on vacation. I ate a bunch of great food (though never "stuffing" myself). I walked around to visit museums. I never thought about fitness. I lost 5 pounds in the two weeks.

There's probably a few reasons why this happened. I was on vacation, so there was no stress-triggered eating. I was getting lots of low-intensity exercise that burned calories without stimulating hunger. I was eating slowly, savoring the tastes of the different foods I was trying. I'm trying to bring these lessons back with me.

> lots of low-intensity exercise that burned calories

The way to lose fat is with intense and brief exercise, like weight circuit training with no rest between sets, on an empty stomach a couple times a week.

Acute exercise in the fasted state, compared with the carbohydrate-fed state, for a given exercise intensity and duration, stimulates the oxidation of fatty acids from both intramyocellular (16) and peripheral (17) fat depots. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01195.2007

Related: Short fast sprints 'cut' diabetes http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/edinburgh_and_ea...

Brief intense training decreases insulin sensitivity, which leads to less fat.

Working out every day to "burn calories" is a very poor use of time. Work out hard and short (20 min) a couple times a week. This will change your hormone profile, boosting growth hormone and testosterone and reducing insulin sensitivity. Those changes make you leaner.

The entire point of the article was that working out hard and short a couple times a week doesn't help one lose weight, and that sustained continuous activity does. The reasoning is those bursts of short activity are met with increased caloric intake, defeating the value of any exercise.

I read the article and it does not really say that. In fact, the only bit that comes close is this: Another British study, this one from the University of Exeter, found that kids who regularly move in short bursts — running to catch a ball, racing up and down stairs to collect toys — are just as healthy as kids who participate in sports that require vigorous, sustained exercise.

I would agree with the general idea that daily walking at a relaxed pace is better than "jogging".

I think proper intense 10-20 minute workouts are so outside of the field of view of people who read and write articles like these they don't understand them. Doing a few sets of no-rest olympic lifts and then five minutes of double-unders with a jump rope does not boost your appetite much. It will make you a bit nauseous. It is not at all like going on a 15 mile bike ride or swimming a mile, which leaves you ravenous 30 minutes after.

Thats not the only part. Near the beginning about 4 groups of women, and the ones who exercized a lot did not lose a significant amount of weight over those who did not exercise beyond normal. The heavy work out group did however report eating more calories. Then there are 2 or 3 pages about low intensity workouts being good because they stimulate calorie burn without stimulating hunger (with a tangent on brown fat in rats).

In fact there are several examples in the article about compensatory eating, such as the women who would get muffins after jogging, canceling any extra calorie burn.

The study referenced in the beginning (with the 4 groups of women) did not sufficiently control diet. OP: <i> All the women were asked not to change their dietary habits... </i> They were asked, but did the women comply? Not likely, due to the compensation problem.

Bottom line: Regulating exercise without regulating diet is not likely to produce results. I don't think this is news.

It has been shown that one's metabolic rate has a certain momentum; it naturally seeks an equilibrium that is different for everybody. Exercise a little more and your body will crave more food; eat a little more, and you will naturally burn off the excess. (For most people).

If one desires a physique that differs from their "natural" state, one must very carefully control BOTH exercise and nutrition. Both are usually necessary to lose fat and gain muscle. And this requires discipline. One cannot exercise regularly and then simply "watch what they eat" and expect certain results. You need to eat certain foods at certain times in certain volumes. Amazing results can be achieved.

"natural" because there is nothing natural about having close to zero food scarcity. Most people eat whatever they want, which happens to be WAY more than they need, which isn't really "natural."

Recommended reading: - _The Paleo Diet_ - Precision Nutrition, http://www.precisionnutrition.com/ - their forums are highly recommended.

It is the exercise and eating habits combo that works. Weight gain = Calories In - Calories out.

Exercising along with the judicious diet (not starving) is what works. I recently came across two books that throw light on the interesting and useful information about high intensity-low duration exercising to develop a great body:

1. Cardio Free Diet: http://tinyurl.com/cardiofreediet and 2. The Nautilus Bodybuilding book: ISBN: 0-8092-5815-3

> Weight gain = Calories In - Calories out

Not true. People and lab animals can be made to get fatter while in caloric deficit with elevated insulin levels.

This comes up in Hacker News every time a health story comes up, usually quoting a pop-sci writer. You've stated it by far the clearest with no vagueness or handwaving so hopefully you can answer this (or provide pointers to research):

In this theory where does the stored energy (i.e. the fat) come from if not from the calorie intake? How can this be done for more than a short period of time (e.g. I know you can break down muscle for energy) without breaking laws of physics?

It's better to argue "weight gain = calories in - calories out" is not the whole story than to argue that it's completely wrong - you can't eat and drink nothing for a week and just get heavier, but what you can do is more like... eat 3500 calories extra in a week without putting on a pound of fat (1lb of fat ~=3500 calories) because your body is not trying to store as much as it can as fat, or eat -3500 calories in a week and end up slowing down your metabolism and moving less and destructing other bodily parts so you turn it into a calorie surfeit and do put on a pound of fat.

This comes up in Hacker News every time a health story comes up, usually quoting a pop-sci writer

Bit of an ad-hom on pop-sci writers there, eh?

> you can break down muscle for energy

Yes. Lean body mass can atrophy from starvation while fat deposits are growing.

The point is more that the equation as stated is a useless way to think about fat loss. Hormones drive the lean vs. fat configuration of your body, not calorie counting. Cut out someone's pancreas and they'll waste away no matter what they eat. Inject testosterone or growth hormone and they will get leaner and more muscular, all else held constant. Inject insulin and they'll get fatter.

Exercise affects your body composition more effectively when you focus on how it changes your hormone profile rather than count calories burned. High resistance major muscle group exercises boost growth hormone and testosterone and increase insulin resistance. Long distance training actually reduces testosterone levels.

Here's my experience:

Running was extraordinarily effective in helping me lose weight. However, it took quite a bit to do it. I was on a cross-country team in high school. That took me from slightly chubby to rail-thin. Every single person on the team who started out over-weight made great progress. One fat kid lost at least 30 pounds in just three months. Nobody I knew who kept running stayed fat.

Still, I have to say that my experience fits with the results of the experiment mentioned in the article. At one point after spending a few years doing little but sitting in front of the computer, I decided to lose about 25 kilos. I went out and did about the amount the "high exercise" group mentioned in the article did, and I just ate more as a result. However, after going over about 50km/week, I found my appetite suppressed. It was kind of like my body had found its equilibrium and my hunger was based upon how much I actually needed. I lost weight really quickly after that.

"cross-country team in high school" - I presume that means you were exercising more than 3 times a week at 30 minutes?

The premise of the article isn't about athletes (which you were) won't lose weight by engaging in their activity. Of course people who _regularly and continuously_ exercise are going to lose weight. Anybody who works with a bicycle rider who commutes more than 10-15 miles into work knows that there are no fat cyclists - And those who bicycle more are usually worrying about getting _enough calories_ to maintain their weight and keep up their conditioning/muscle mass.

The article was talking about whether it makes sense for your average cube-rat to go out to the gym three times a week for a 60 minute excercise regime - and the conclusion is no. It really doesn't help you lose weight because you end up eating more than you just spent in caloric expenditure from the exercise.

Yes. As I said, the turning point for me seems to be at about 50km/week. I probably did double that in high school. That came out to about 10 hours of running per week.

I agree completely about "cube rats" not being able to lose much weight from 30 minutes 3 times a week. The research mentioned in the first part of the article seemed pretty much in line with my experience. It really does take about an hour to an hour and a half a day to make a big difference in terms of weight loss.

I still think that it makes sense for cube rats to do cardio, though. Even if it's only 30 minutes a day, they'll still be quite a bit healthier, lower their risk of heart disease more than losing weight would, and even promote neurogenesis.

The human body just isn't well adapted to being a cube rat.

> As science writer Gary Taubes noted in his 2007 book Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, "The obese tend to expend more energy than lean people of comparable height, sex, and bone structure, which means their metabolism is typically burning off more calories rather than less."

Bizarre irrelevant quote from that book. I think it was made while blasting the eat-less-exercise-more crowd which does not work. Taubes argues that the wrong theory comes from a misunderstanding of the conservation of energy principle, i.e., for anyone who gains weight it has to be true but it does not explain the cause. Growing teens eat more than they expend in energy and the reason is growth hormone. Same applies to gaining weight, the cause is insulin which is elevated when we eat carbs. Cut the carbs and lose weight and possibly a raft of other modern diseases. The science is very clear and the medical field is ignoring it because they owe us a huge mea culpa.

Read the book but here is more data. http://thras.blogspot.com/2009/08/diet.html

I find it annoying that either through ignorance or a need to create an eye-catching headline the author interchangeably uses the words "thin" and "weight" to describe a metric used to measure some undefined-but-ideal body shape,

There is an incredibly difference between being a 180lb man who exercises regularly and one who does not.

Perhaps the author was never asked the "which weighs more, a ton of feathers or a ton of lead?" question as a child.

> ignorance or a need to create an eye-catching headline

What is it about being a hacker that makes us so surprised and/or upset when marketing works on us? As if we just lost an intellectual battle?

Marketing works, people. It's just hacking curiosity. You all read the article, didn't you? I finished it to the end.

Hmm I exercise daily and have been more tempted to eat healthier foods, rather than undo all the work my body has put in exercising. I'm down 30LB in the past 45 days. Time can suck it.

30 lbs in 45 days. Impressive. I've dropped about 30 lbs in the last year and need to drop the last 10 lbs or so. I would love to know how your exercise and diet look like today.

this is a very good point, that as one gets into better and better shape, you at the same time become sensitized to how your body reacts to how you eat! I myself have been noticing this over the past month or two.


The title is misleading. Of course, just exercise, or just diet, is not going to get you very far. It has to be both together.

Actually, I lost a lot of weight just by cutting 10% from my calories. I did no additional exercise and no extravagant changes to diet ... just identified a few places where there was a big calorie win and knocked it out. Then, I just waited. It takes a long time, but I hardly modified my life at all. I think half the problem with the struggle people have to lose weight is just that they are impatient - if they don't see results within a week or two they just give up. The key ingredients to me are moderation and time.

The premise of the article is the exact opposite - it suggests (and quotes numerous studies and observations) that exercising not only doesn't help in weight reduction, it can result in weight gain. This is a counter intuitive conclusion, which is what makes the article so interesting.

Let me summarise. If you exercise you'll feel hungrier and if you don't show some self-restraint, you'll probably eat more and either not lose anything or actually put on weight. As the saying goes "Abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym."

That was the bit of the article I found strange. I'll often head straight from the gym to the grocery store, and what usually happens it the exact opposite of what the article describes.

After a workout, I'm in "Health Mode", so at the store I fill the cart with the things that Health Mode Jason wants to eat. 3 days later, Slouch Mode Jason heads to the kitchen to find it filled with brown rice, chicken breasts and dried seaweed. What could I possibly have expected to make with seaweed??? And why isn't there anything here for dessert?

But yeah, it would never occur to me to head straight from the gym to In & Out burger. Health Mode Jason would never stand for that.

"if you don't show some self-restraint" - the articles premise was that the brief bursts of activity reduce your ability to show self-restraint. I find it interesting that people think "self-restraint" is some magical ability that isn't weakened/enhanced like any other capability of people. The reality is that managing the "Self-Restraint" muscle is probably much more important than trying to manage other muscles.

Self-restraint is a hackable psychological phenomenon in one's brain. I agree that it is not an innate moral power, but I disagree that it is a distinct human quality that can be strengthened. Self-restraint boils down to optimism. People can put themselves through anything if they have faith that it will pay off in the end. Rational knowledge doesn't help, and it isn't a matter of simply being harsh with oneself, either: harshness and pessimism just produce a paralyzed, chubby, self-loathing person. If passing up a cheeseburger leaves you with a dead feeling inside -- "I'm deprived now and screwed in the long run anyway, what a waste" -- then you won't be able to keep it up. If you have faith that passing up the cheeseburger will have a long-term payoff, then your brain gives you a down payment of happiness that cancels out the displeasure of depriving yourself.

That's why thinking about a distant, glorious end result (like a smoking hot beach body) works for some people but is counterproductive for others. It's motivational if you really believe in it. For many people, though, it's just a reminder that they're making sacrifices for something that they don't believe in at all. Those people are better of thinking of less distant payoffs that they can really believe in, even if the payoffs are trivial by comparison.

Some people think that your brain will simply not accept passing up food that your body thinks it needs, that it's completely unnatural and therefore impossible. But you do things all the time that have energetic costs and distant, uncertain payoffs. Hard work, saving money, hell, even just getting out of bed: these are things that impose immediate costs. Your brain does emotional bookkeeping to incline you to avoid costs that have no payoff. If you've ever been depressed, you know that getting out of bed is sheer misery if you believe that nothing good will come of it. Yet it's normal to get out of bed, get to work on time, and work at a job for a payoff that comes a few weeks later. (Or, for a startup, months or years later.) In the same way, it can be normal to pass up food. You just have to have faith in the payoff. You might think that food has some special status in your brain, and it might, but your brain is surprisingly abstract and adaptable. (Consider the recent article about money!) Also consider that physical labor is basically the opposite of food, but people manage to habituate themselves to physical labor despite the complaints of their body (which are, initially, totally out of proportion to the physical cost.)

Having faith isn't easy; in fact, it's really hard. But it demystifies the question of why people eat or don't eat, and why they feel good or bad when doing so. I find it much easier to deal with my "faith" than to struggle directly with my impulses.

EDIT: Hmm, I got upvoted while in the process of making a major revision. Sorry about that. I should stop using the "edit" page for preview/composition.

I'm not really able to comprehend what you are trying to get at here, though I recognize you are putting a lot of effort into trying to explain your worldview.

By "improving Self-Restraint" I mean "Making changes so one is not motivated to eat".

o Stomach Stapling

o Avoiding High Glycemic/Carb Rich foods

o Not going out to the Gym for 60 minute work outs.

Trying to rely on some moral-superiority is pretty much going to lose out in the long run (though most people have pretty good 6-12 month runs, and a nice 30-50 pound drop in weight - then it all comes back and more.)

You frame it as an opposition between two opposing forces, a person's appetite for immediate reward and his self-restraint. The strength of one's restraint is measured against the strength's of one's desires. You improve results by strengthening restraint and weakening appetite.

I see self-restraint as a limited amount of discretion that a person has to override his natural tendency to maximize emotional reward. As the article says, self-restraint is tiring and unnatural; it's a stopgap measure at best. The primary conflict is in your emotional brain's cost/benefit analysis of the situation. You have to hack your emotional reward system so you don't have to employ as much self-restraint. When you naturally derive satisfaction from eating well, because you have faith in the ultimate payoff, your natural tendency will not be as strongly tilted in favor of overeating.

Your subconscious/emotional/whatever brain is smarter than most people think. You aren't doomed to have an out-of-touch brain that fills you with irresistible, self-destructive impulses to overeat. We may have evolved on the savannah, but if you can stand on a subway platform, surrounded by strangers whose personal feelings about you are unknown, waiting for a huge steel structure to come whizzing by you at high speed, without feeling scared, you can learn to leave food on your plate. You just have to program your brain properly (cultivate faith) so that you feel, subconsciously, that limiting your eating leads to well-being and happiness (and, according to the highly publicized recent study, more sex if you're a man.)

Actually, what I'm saying is that you strengthen restraint _by_ weakening appetite. Not to say there isn't some small percentage of people who can rise about their stomachs desire for food, I'm just saying that for 85% plus of the (mostly sedentary) human population in the west, the key to success is to eliminate that basic need for food in the first place.

I'd be interested in reading about successful diets/studies that tackle this from the angle you are talking about - rewiring the brain/emotions so that they are able to overcome the hunger reflex over the long term.

Thanks for the comment. Made me think in a way that I've never thought before.

Actually, I suspect the point of the article is to help fat people feel better about being fat. People (especially American people) need reassuring that nothing is ever their fault.

You didn't get fat by eating too much because it's all determined by genetics, and you actually have a medical condition. You don't need to worry about trying to lose weight because it's been scientifically proven that you can't. That's why those diets failed. Not because of any fault or lack of determination on your part.

I have no idea why it works this way, but I've observed it happening all my life, so I've just accepted it as the way things are. Not surprisingly, living in Europe, where being fat is generally considered to be a condition you got yourself into all by yourself, you don't tend to see many fat people around.

You're ignoring the fact that the food industries in Europe and America are very different. When Italy has an Applebee's in each strip mall then Italians will be as fat as Americans. People are people; neither you nor Europeans are magical in their limited appetites. They simply haven't been conditioned from birth to overeat.

Or, alternatively, fat people are sissies. It's an, uh, interesting theory you've put forth. Best of luck in getting that paper published.

It still comes down to self control. I didn't move to Europe until I was 36, and I'm not fat. I've cut my share of Applebees Chicken Fried Steaks in half to box up for dinner, while my co-workers finished theirs off. It has just always seemed readily apparent that if you eat every meal until you are full, you will get fat. I don't, so I haven't.

So yeah, it's entirely possible that we're conditioning our kids to overeat. But then we're also going out of our way to make them feel better about themselves because you're special just the way you are.

I don't think you've read the OP.

It addresses self-control: evidence exists to support the idea that human have a limited amount and range of focus of self-control, and can suffer from self-control fatigue:


Hell, that paper was on HN not long ago.

Self-control is not a great vehicle for weight loss, as is evidenced by the recidivism rate for diets, fad or otherwise. "Use self-control" is shitty advice for weight loss. "Avoid the cue-dopamine-behavior-opioid reinforcement cycle by using cognitive psychology self-talk to associate negative emotions with salient cues, consciously pre-determining behavior for when one is presented with salient cues, and avoiding hyperpalatable foods with high levels of salt, sugar, and fat" is closer to the mark, though it's not as punchy. Also doesn't provide the same sense of moral self-satisfaction from being stronger than fat people.

I have no idea where you're coming from with the special snowflake crap. The article was not titled Exercise Won't Make You Thin (So Buy A Mu-Mu And Eat Up Fatty Because You're Never Going To Change And That's OK). In fact, the article concludes with: "In short, it's what you eat, not how hard you try to work it off, that matters more in losing weight. You should exercise to improve your health, but be warned: fiery spurts of vigorous exercise could lead to weight gain."

I fail to detect the self-esteem happy-talk fatalism to which you're reacting.

The first thing that jumped out at me is that weight is the wrong metric in the first place. I'd rather be the same weight but have more, and better proportioned, muscle mass. (Muscle burns calories even when you're resting...it's a much better knob to tweak than the number of calories burnt during exercise.)

The author might be better off by giving away his bathroom scale and thinking about his body as a system.

The article does address this to some extent. For example:

"According to calculations published in the journal Obesity Research by a Columbia University team in 2001, a pound of muscle burns approximately six calories a day in a resting body, compared with the two calories that a pound of fat burns. Which means that after you work out hard enough to convert, say, 10 lb. of fat to muscle — a major achievement — you would be able to eat only an extra 40 calories per day, about the amount in a teaspoon of butter, before beginning to gain weight."

It does not address the fact that when you convert 10 lbs of fat to muscle, you weigh the same but are ultimately in better shape.

This is a problem for a lot of people especially for men, who tend to build a lot of muscle as they exercise. Focusing on weight will mislead you and set yourself up for disappointment. A better solution is to take a front and side photo of yourself once a month to compare physical transformation.

Assuming a direct conversion of calories in to fat, as you do when you talk about eating 40 calories, leads to this quote:

"If you eat 2,700 calories per day, that's roughly 1 million per year, 10 million in a decade. ~12 tons of food in a decade. To maintain your bodyweight to within 5lbs in a decade would require an accuracy of 0.1% in your calorie counting. Under this model, the question isn't why do people get fat, it's how does anyone avoid it?" - Gary Taube's Big Fat Lies lecture.

This Gary Taube is an idiot. Here's how it actually works: you notice yourself getting fat over a period of weeks, and then you correct it over a period of weeks. It's a process of continual adjustment. You don't weigh yourself once every 10 years!

No, but I think that you're missing that he's pointing you at that conclusion - that the system is self-regulating to a large degree.

The "muscle burns calories" idea is a popular myth, as you explain.

The value of muscle mass is that it buffers glucose and insulin. Muscle forms and stores glycogen that would otherwise go right to fat cells. These glycogen stores then also help control appetite, fending off acute snack attack hunger pangs that a scrawny person accustomed to a high carb diet gets when blood sugar wanes.

On a related note, has anyone found any studies examining how much your metabolism actually decreases when you diet?

I've been tracking my weight and calories/exercise for over a year, and I've noticed the oddest thing. I can eat up to 3000 calories/day with no exercise and not gain weight. But I have to eat under 2000 calories/day to lose any weight.

I seem to have this dead zone 2000-3000 calories where my body seems to set my metabolism to whatever I eat.

(Of course the math and statistics confused the bejezus out of me, so I may be completely wrong.)

Gee, I can eat more calories of pizza in ten minutes than I could burn off in two hours of running... if I could run for two hours at the same pace I can run for half an hour. What more explanation do you need?

On the other hand, exercise improves my mood and helps me limit my eating, and for that reason it's quite helpful.

Nobody is ever going to agree on this. Different things work for different people. Everyone's got their "I did this and lost loads of weight" or "this didn't work for me" story.

Some form of exercise combined with less and better food is probably going to get you somewhere. Learning to live with being hungry helps :-).

At the end of the day, you lose weight by using more calories than you take in.

While the results of the Time article may apply to some people, I've found that I do a better job of losing weight when I go to the gym at least 4 times a week, and I've lost 45 pounds so far this year, most of it since March. At the end of the day, though, you still have to be conscious about what you eat, and find things that satisfy cravings without destroying the work you've done.

The problem is that every few weeks an article comes out with some blanket statement like this, like "Excercise won't make you thin" which is only a partial truth. If you read many articles about fitness and nutrition you'll realize that there are no black and whites when it comes to nutrition and weightloss and there is no one easy answer.

Staying healthy and losing weight is a combination of good habits.

The reality is of course that exercise is a fantastic way to lose weight and stay healthy, but as this article says if you don't pair that healthy eating habits it means absolutely nothing.

I recommend the mono diet. Ingredients: 1 part dirty (ex-)girlfriend. I lost 15 pounds in one month! Highly recommended.

Now that I have that weight off I feel the need to keep it that way, so I've gone from 10 beers a week (ballmer peak..) down to 1 or 2 and cut out as much stuff that has High Fructose Corn Syrup from my intake as I can. And I'm trying to do the CRON thing and eat slower and eat like half of my meals or just have more, smaller meals. Keeps my metabolism up throughout the day and helps me convert more to energy. That seems to have done the trick.

PS - rice cakes and rice/whey protein are great

What I find interesting is that there may be an even better way to lose weight. Let's say you run five miles. That burns around 100 Calories or 100 kcal or 4.184 x 10^3 J.

Now, consider this. Let's say that a 165 lb (72.57 kg) human male is around 100% water (this is not true, its about 60% water, but for our purposes it'll be ok). Now, since this person is made of water, we'll consider that the specific heat of a human being is about that of water, thus 4.186 J/(g.C). Now, how much energy is expended in order to raise 72.57 kg 3 Celsius degrees? Q=c.m.dt = (4186 J/(kg.C)).(72.57 kg).(3 C) = 911,334 J.

What's interesting is this: by decreasing the temperature of your thermostat by 5.4 degrees fahrenheit, you can burn more than double what you get by running 5 miles. Of course, there are other benefits to exercise, but if your only gain is to lose weight, why not take advantage of the Laws of Thermodynamics? Of course, I'm simply restating what doctors have known for years. Unless you're a world-class athlete, your diet isn't providing energy for your various activity, it's providing "living energy." This is all the energy that your body requires simply to stay alive. The proper name for this term is the "basal metabolism." It makes up far more of the average person's metabolism than anything else. Thus, by using it to your advantage, you can lose weight quicker and easier.

Edit: You can also stop shoving calories into your face, but I don't get to do math/physics with that.

As someone who's been trying to lose weight for a while, I have to say that trying to control your diet without working out is hard. Ever since I started working out and playing squash (for the last 2 months) I have significantly reduced my daily calorie intake (from ~3500 calories to between 1200 - 1500 calories). I tried this in the past but could never keep it going beyond a couple of weeks.

I think the reason working out has helped me is 'cause in the back of my head, I'm thinking about all the work I'd have to put in at the gym to make up for those 1000 extra calories I had. So, while controlling your diet is essential, doing some physical exercise to support that is just as important IMHO.

Now I know why I can't hack it as a radio talk show host or freelance writer. I just don't have the ability to stretch a single sentence - "Losing weight requires a calorie deficit." - into four pages.

Nor can you come to the wrong conclusion at the end.

My favorite part of this article was a part in another article linked in the "Related stories" section:

Indeed, exercise was more strongly associated with weight loss than any other factor, including diet. Overall, the more the women exercised, the more weight they lost.


So yeah, diet is more important than exercise, and exercise is more important than diet. Glad we solved that, thanks Time.

Actually, intense thinking, as I recall, burns a lot of calories.

The trick is diet, as mentioned on here (next to moderate levels of exercise). Eat mostly veggies, rice, pasta, avocados, fruit. Drink water and no pop.

The other thing: look up glycemic index of foods. The easier it is for the body to turn something into sugar (processed foods, e.g. white bread), the more likely the body will create an insulin rush, which wrecks havoc by flipping a switch to make your body store fat. Many people don't know about this fact.

The fruit, rice and pasta are pretty high up on the glycemic index.

Pasta isn't a high GI food.

"Q: Why does pasta have a low GI?

A: Pasta has a low GI because of the physical entrapment of ungelatinised starch granules in a sponge-like network of protein (gluten) molecules in the pasta dough. Pasta is unique in this regard. As a result, pastas of any shape and size have a fairly low GI (30 to 60). Asian noodles such as hokkein, udon and rice vermicelli also have low to intermediate GI values."

from http://www.glycemicindex.com/faqprint.htm

As a reference for anyone unfamiliar with the glycemic index, a piece of white bread is typically set to be at 100, and lower is better.

All I know is when I exercise regularly, I'm thinner. Just about everyone I know that exercises regularly is thin (and healthier). There are a few exceptions.

Ok, I'll speak as someone who has actually lost 70 pounds without diet pills, surgery or anything unhealthy. I had to change how I thought about food, eat stuff thats less processed, and find things that I really liked to do for exercise.

I love to bicycle and some days I will be on the trails for 3 hours. I burn 1000 calories per hour while exercising. Also by exercising more and eating better I actually started eating less.

Yea, that is why (if you took off those numbers they wear) you wouldn't be able to tell marathon runners from random people at walmart...

The article mentioned the energy gap. Energy gap is the only metric that matters for weight loss. Anything else is just a means to that end, and the wrong abstraction can lead to the wrong medium-term goals and short-term decision biases ("Should I do this right now or this?").

I remember the days when I was on the collegiate crew team and I worked out twice a day for 3 hours. At the end of the season I gained 20 lbs (probably of muscle) but I remember distinctly eating about 5 times a day compared to my normal 2-3 times a day now.

So you need to BOTH watch your eating and exercise. Color me surprised...

Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin

10 Sex Tips To Drive Your Man Crazy

Jon And Kate What Now

Bat Boy Born in Boise

Subscribe to HN and get headlines just like the ones on the magazine rack in the checkout isle of the grocery store!

A lot of bad logic in this article. The main point being - that author feels like she's exercising a lot. 30 minutes cardio a day is not a lot (the biggest exercise being an 1 hour intensive interval training), otherwise the author runs 5.5 miles (1 hour?).

That is not a lot of training. Lets assume that this is mostly all exercise the author is doing (she's probably sitting through most of her day). That is barely making up for the lack of exercise.

If she (or anybody else for that matter) stopped loosing weight at her current intake/expenditure level it's merely an indication that she either eats too much or exercises too little.

But the basic problem being that people believe that 30 minutes or 1 hour is a lot exercise. At those levels you don't even get your body going yet. What a person thinks about their fitness level is irrelevant. A person doing only 1 hour of exercise a day is barely fit. Really fit people (athletic - thin) can go on for 3-5 hours without problem.

So if you want to lose weight drop any meals after 4 pm (4 pm being last snack - a fruit). Start eating in the morning, eat every 3 hours (breakfast - snack - lunch - snack - over) and exercise at least 1 hour a day (2 being super good). Don't work yourself too hard. Go for low intensity workout (walking, light running, cycling). You HAVE to stay under 70% HR (sub 140 BMP for 20-30 yr old).

You can eat anything in any combination. This kind of diet is kinda hard for first two weeks but then it becomes a habit.

I downvoted you as your last meal of the day should be high protein, low GI. Fruit is the opposite.

You've been here long enough to know that this is not how HN does things.

You do NOT express disagreement with downmods.

Yes, I know about those, and despite what he says, that is not the current norm. (Those posts are from quite a long time ago.)

This is not a difference of opinion, it's removing incorrect and even harmful information from the discussion. I'd have modded the same if he'd advised smoking to lose weight.

Well I apologize. Point I was trying to make was actually that the last meal should be small not the kind of it.

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