If you’re one of the millions of people struggling to lose weight, the latest news probably isn't helping your motivation much. I’m talking about two recently published articles, both backed by rigorous research, that paint a grim picture around weight loss and exercise. But don't throw in the towel just yet. They don't tell the full story.
In case you're not familiar with the articles I’m talking about, here's a quick recap:
The New York Times article looked at former contestants on “The Biggest Loser” and concluded that almost all of them regained the weight they'd lost on the show. The article reasons that after drastic weight loss, two things happen that make weight gain almost inevitable:
- Resting metabolism decreases (so you burn fewer calories).
- Hunger and cravings increase, thanks to plummeting levels of leptin, the hormone that controls hunger.
“As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back,” says Dr. Michael Schwartz in the article.
In the second article, writers at Vox claim that exercise does not work for weight loss. It concludes “exercise is excellent for health, but it's not important for weight loss” by citing 60+ supporting studies. The article reads much like a compilation of what I’ve been writing about for years. It even includes some identical messages, such as why counting calories from exercise will sabotage your weight-loss goals and why you should focus on diet, not exercise.
Still, I found myself upset after reading both of these articles—not because of what they said, but because of what they didn’t say. They omit half of the story, leaving readers with only one conclusion to infer: We’re f*cked! Your exercise has been for naught. And if somehow you actually do lose weight, expect the pounds to creep back on, because you’re fighting a losing battle against biology.
If you’re like most people who read those articles, you're probably not aware that there are countless people (including yours truly) who have lost weight and kept it off through diet and exercise. Yes, exercise. Some examples include Charles Gross, who once weighed more than 400 pounds, or my client Jeremiah (pictured below), who has lost more 100 pounds. And there are many more. In fact, the Internet is littered with success stories about permanent weight loss.
So why do experts paint such a dismal picture around weight loss and the role exercise plays? Are people like Charles or Jeremiah simply special snowflakes? Nope. I know this because I’ve interviewed, coached, and examined the data behind thousands of successful dieters, and those who keep the weight off all follow a repeatable pattern (more on this later).
A Little Help From History
To help you understand the difference between these articles and reality, let’s go back 200 years, when famed economist Thomas Malthus's research on population growth was concerned with the opposite problem: starvation.
Through his research, Malthus came to the conclusion that humankind would ultimately starve. You see, his equations showed that population growth would exceed food supply, thereby creating an incredibly grim future for humankind. Similar to the outlook shared by today’s weight-loss researchers, economists agreed that Malthus’s projections were unfortunately accurate. One economist said the outlook was “dreary, stolid, dismal, without hope for this world or the next.”
Now, Malthus’s research wasn’t necessarily wrong, but it looked at the world the same way he and other economists always had. This way did not account for the exponential improvement in food production, which has led to our McDonald’s-filled, calorie-laden world today. Had Malthus stepped outside the box and accounted for the possible impact of technology, his prediction may have been different.
The dismal views about weight loss presented by Vox and The New York Times are similar to Malthus's conclusion. Both articles use research that is not incorrect, it’s just shortsighted. More specifically, they're based on the very common, one-dimensional approach to weight loss: simply eat less and move more, a strategy that rarely works. The countless successful individuals who have used a very different approach are then ignored. According to writer and nutrition expert Alan Aragon, the very nature of most research settings could be part of the problem:
“Most researchers do not 'live' in the real world. Meaning many diet researchers have little to zippo client experience. They've been completely immersed in the literature and the lab but are oftentimes noobs or complete strangers to the trenches.”
These trenches are where I’ve learned that, for every transformed individual I’ve talked to, exercise has played an important role. But not just not any type of exercise.
The Right Way to Exercise for Weight Loss
Remember those two things that happen in your body after weight loss (slower resting metabolism and increased hunger)? Well, it's true this is often why people regain weight after a diet, as covered in The New York Times article. But exercise—the right kind of exercise—can be a game changer during this period of predisposed weight gain.
Instead of exercising for the purpose of burning calories (the way the Vox article views it), let’s say you exercise to build muscle in the form of resistance training. You might gain some fat, but you’ll also accumulate muscle mass, thereby raising your metabolism.
Working out for the sake of burning calories is like paying off credit card debt. Exercising to build muscle is like paying a mortgage.
If you keep regularly strength training (while also eating smart), you can actually create a metabolic momentum of sorts in which dieting becomes easier and your body slowly increases the amount of calories it utilizes. For example, in the four years I've worked with Jeremiah, he's gone from needing 2,200 calories per day to about 2,500 calories per day. I know, four years is a long time. But if you want make lasting change, you have to be patient.
This strategy isn't new. It’s been used in the bodybuilding and evidence-based fitness world for many years, and it’s just one example of how we can actually control our "dismal" outcome.
Working out for the sake of burning calories (i.e., cardio) is like paying off credit card debt. Exercising to build muscle (i.e., strength training) is like paying a mortgage. By building muscle mass, you’re building an asset, not trying to move forward on a metaphorical treadmill.
Vox’s article takes a futile “calories out” view of exercise and concludes that it is not an important factor in weight loss. Like Malthus’s prediction, its grim nature is the result of an incomplete story. There's more than one way to exercise.
Both articles aim to correct common half-truths about weight loss, The New York Times shedding light on the fleeting nature of weight loss and Vox correcting our assumptions about cardio. But it takes more than reading a few dozen studies to understand the full picture.
The authors weren’t deliberately trying to discourage you, but that doesn’t make these stories any less damaging. They only presented half-truths, and when it comes to fitness, half-truths are the most dangerous.
Why You Need to Know the Whole Truth
You see, Malthus’s predictions would’ve been proven false no matter what people thought. Whether economists believed the world would starve or not, the self-correcting nature of economics would reveal the truth.
Your belief about weight loss, on the other hand, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe that you are doomed by your own physiology, and you will simply become a data point that corroborates the half-true message of today’s research. But if you dare to believe that change is possible and seek the insights missed by the aforementioned articles, your personal story will reveal the full truth: Weight loss is possible for anyone.
Richard "Dick" Talens is the co-founder of Minimum Viable Fitness and Fitocracy, one of the most popular fitness tracking sites on the Internet. The views expressed herein are his. For more from Richard, check out his website or follow him on Twitter.