Is exercise useless?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2009

The author of a recent magazine article complained that "exercise won't make you thin." That was a wonderful consolation to persons who exercise but whose weight and waistlines won't budge, no matter what. His explanation: exercise makes us hungry so we eat more and replace the calories that we just burned on the treadmill or stair-climber.

The personal examples that he proffers are probably consistent with what most people do: 4 hours a week of running or working out, each session followed by a rewarding Starbucks beverage and a muffin or a sugary sports drink. He cites a study of 3 groups of women who worked out from 72 to 194 minutes a week. Some gained weight during the 6 months of the study.

He's exactly right! No one can be expected to lose weight that way because it defies the laws of dietary physics.

Here's the bad news: his average 34 minutes a day of even moderately intense exercise might burn off about 8 ounces of fat per week provided that there was no intake of excess calories. But a Starbucks muffin? Even without the lotta mocha drink a daily muffin (470 calories) will add nearly as many calories as all that exercise has burned.

Here's worse news: it takes at least one hour of moderately intense exercise almost every day as well as a reduction in calories in order to lose about two pounds of fat per week. Sorry, I don't make the rules.

There is some good news. That much exercise will add muscle to your body so that your weight might not change much but your shape will. After all, you don't want to just lose weight; you want to lose fat.

How about something better than a muffin, a cappuccino or a pint of sugar water to satisfy your post-workout hunger? Here's a suggestion from the Stone Age Doc: a 75-calorie apple, maybe two. A peanut butter (2 tablespoons) snack on a single piece of whole wheat bread or celery stick has about 300 calories and a lot more healthy protein than that muffin. How does a protein bar sound? Of course, there's not an ounce of glamour in these no-sugar-and-no-saturated-fat suggestions. But then, a belly that droops over your belt, as the author of that article admits to having, ain't so glamorous either.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.