A Response to Vox, the NYT, and ‘The Biggest Loser’ Controversy
During the last few weeks, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been awash with articles that seem to call into question the benefits of exercise and weight loss, with a troubling detour into the weight loss methods of ‘The Biggest Loser.’
As someone who has lost a lot of weight and kept it off, this debate is more than an abstract conversation – it feels personal to me. As I shared with a group of my remote nutrition coaching clients,
It’s not cool to talk about weight loss anymore. Catchphrases like “Strong is the New Skinny” and “Healthy at Every Size” have diluted the (already confusing) weight loss conversation, making some women unsure if they even should lose weight. However, I know how serious the need for weight loss can be. I am, in fact, a weight loss success story, in that I lost a significant mount of weight (50 pounds from a petite 5’4″ frame) and have kept it off for more than five years.”
I received a message from a client that contained a link to this article from Vox called “Why You Shouldn’t Exercise To Lose Weight, Explained with 60+ Studies.” In the article, which – I admit – is extremely well-done, there are at least five polished infographics, and they stick to their “60+ studies” promise and legitimately back up the author’s argument that exercise is not effective for weight loss (they recommend calorie restriction instead).
Multiple re-runs of what is essentially the same article from different sources, the original being this New York Times article about The Biggest Loser, has also been making the rounds on social media. Titled, “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” this article also seems to imply that losing weight can harm your metabolism.
What’s a personal trainer to do?
First of all, why is everyone hating on exercise and weight loss right now? Is it some kind of weird pushback against the typical “beach body” marketing that strikes at this time of year?
Secondly, my opinion is that both the well-researched Vox article and the less-researched NYT article (‘The Biggest Loser’ contestants make for a very small and homogenous pool of subjects) make excellent and very true points, but miss the overall mark for the sake of making a point.
Over-Idealizing Weight Loss
My first issue with both articles is the underlying value that weight loss should be the primary goal of exercise and/or healthy eating.
As I list in another one of my blog posts, there are dozens of benefits of a healthy lifestyle that do not include aesthetic appearance, including stronger bones, better blood sugar and blood pressure, and increased quality of life. Although there are recommended ranges, there is no “perfect weight” for anyone. Shows like the ‘The Biggest Loser’ send a message that the more you lose, the better! The very title is troubling.
Exercise because it’s fun, because you feel better when you do it, and it improves your quality of life. You will probably also lose weight, and physique goals are worthy goals. But when you remove the benefits of exercise 100% to the far-off goal of a dream body, you miss out on what it has to offer in the present.
Best Exercise Methods to Protect Your Metabolism and Hormones
Next, what both articles don’t say clearly enough is that different types, durations, and intensity levels of exercise affect you, the exerciser, differently in the long haul. The Vox article saves this point for late in the article (by which time most people have digested the first few paragraphs and the title and probably moved on to the next clickbait feature), but it is perhaps the most important point. “Calories in, calories out” is true up to a point – the problem is that overtraining causes metabolic problems, and also creates a sense of entitlement around food.
The example at the beginning of the Vox article is classic:
“I’m going to make you work hard,” a blonde and perfectly muscled fitness instructor screamed at me in a recent spinning class, “so you can have that second drink at happy hour!”
At the end of the 45-minute workout, my body was dripping with sweat. I felt like I had worked really, really hard. And according to my bike, I had burned more than 700 calories. Surely I had earned an extra margarita.
The article goes on to make the very correct point that this person does not “earn” the extra margarita. While I agree, I want to elaborate further that exercise like spinning classes and running, especially when done frequently, have the opposite of the intended effect. It is very likely that when you see 700 calories on the bike, you did not really burn 700 calories, because your body adjusts to exercise and doesn’t continue to expend calories in a linear way. Instead, it adapts. Cardio exercise becomes increasingly efficient, and it is essential that you incorporate variety, strength training, sprints, and rest days into your routine to make it effective over a long period of time.
‘The Biggest Loser’ is a Terrible Example
Regarding the NYT article, I don’t think that using contestants of ‘The Biggest Loser’ as a test sample is really fair or viable, because the brutal exercise and diet methods are not realistic (not even close), or sustainable, and the sample pool of people is so incredibly homogenous.
Even if you ignore the emotional and verbal abuse that happens on the show, which is played up for entertainment purposes, you have the face the reality that this is not a normal weight loss situation, and that the body is not meant to function well under those conditions.
Contestants exercise on what is essentially a full-time work schedule (sometimes as much as 7-8 hours per day) while under-eating in order to drop weight at a lightning-fast rate from a much higher-than-average weight level. Even though the contestants begin the show extremely overweight and it is true that you can drop more weight more safely when you are just starting your weight loss journey, they are still losing too much, way too fast.
Therefore, the conclusions about the lowered metabolic rates of the participants makes a generalization about weight loss that is inappropriate. Most people do not lose weight by under-eating and simultaneously exercising for 7-8 hours per day (to the point of dehydration, injury, illness, and more) for 21 straight weeks. To draw the conclusion that, because ‘The Biggest Loser’ contestants suffer from lowered metabolic rates, everyone who loses weight will compromise their metabolic functioning is inaccurate.
Healthy Speed to Lose Weight
Talking about these two articles leads to a debate that continues to pulsate through the professional fitness community – is it better to lose weight quickly or slowly? Some, including myself, stick with a one-pound-per-week idea (depending on starting weight), or less, for most people.
Some people claim that seeing dramatic results right away is more motivating and empowering. However, I think that losing weight slowly is important for several reasons:
- Skin elasticity
- Habit development
Some would disagree with me, but if your goal is long-term results that last, I say slow and steady wins the race.
Habit Development, Not Results
If you need to lose weight because of medical or quality-of-life issues, you need to ask yourself, “Do I want to lose it now or do I want to keep it off forever?”
Gradual weight loss is the result of small shifts in lifestyle that are possible (and yes, fairly easy) to maintain. These habits include both eating routines and exercise practices. To really form habits and not simply see immediate results, your practices need to be realistically self-disciplined. Otherwise, they’re not habits – you’re simply yo-yo dieting.
You can see immediate results, but if your results happen because of intense calorie restriction or brutal exercise (or a combination), your life will not support these continued practices, because, in non-technical terms, they are awful.
However, it’s not mutually exclusive. If you’re at a higher body fat percentage initially, you will probably see weight loss quickly, even with small shifts. But the habits should be the focus, not the results.
The Difference Between Diet and Exercise
To directly address the Vox article, yes, what you eat is more important than exercise for weight. That is accurate. At the end of the article, I think it is summed up perfectly:
The researchers behind the study found that people who have had success losing weight share a few things in common: They weigh themselves at least once a week. They restrict their calorie intake, stay away from high-fat foods, and watch their portion sizes. They also exercise regularly.
The reality is that weight loss and healthy weight maintenance is a constellation of behaviors, and each aspect has a unique result. As Marion Nestle has said many times about nutrition, it’s not about the “one food” or “one nutrient” – it’s about the big picture of your eating patterns. Similarly, people who lose weight and successfully maintain a lean physique have a big toolbox of habits and behaviors that keep them trim.
In simple terms, both exercise and nutrition affect your weight, but in slightly different ways, and each is multi-faceted. When it comes to diet, both calories and quality matter, and when it comes to exercise, regularity and intensity both matter as well.
Both a healthy eating lifestyle and exercise are important for the best functioning of your body on a day-to-day basis, as well as your appearance.
The Trouble with Titles
I reacted somewhat negatively to both of these articles, because their titles were so incredibly provocative. The “do no harm” philosophy is just as important for fitness professionals and writers as it is for the medical profession, in my opinion. Titling articles in a way that seems to discourage exercise creates clickbait, yes, but it also distorts an important message.
The way you eat and the way you exercise are both important for a healthy lifestyle, and while there is some reasonable self-discipline mixed in, fitness does not have to be punishing, restrictive, or limiting. Instead, a healthy way of eating coupled with a well-planned and enjoyable exercise routine is incredibly effective for long-term weight loss. I am a living example of that – I lost 50 pounds and have never looked back, and there are no gimmicks or shortcuts involved. It all comes down to the creation of a long-term lifestyle that works.
Want to know the best shifts to make in your lifestyle? Try some of these out:
- Sprints – Whatever type of cardio exercise you prefer, make sure to incorporate bursts of high-intensity speed and effort (known as “sprints”) into your workouts.
- Food Log – Keep a food journal to discover where your eating habits suffer during the day, and be honest. This will help you make the right changes that have the biggest impact without making you feel deprived.
- Strength Train – In addition to cardio, you need to incorporate consistent, progressive strength training into your routine, whether you use your body weight for traditional calisthenics, or add resistance.
- Rest Days – No matter what, you need rest days 1-2 times per week. Even The Rock takes rest days!
- Stuck? Learn more about coaching!
What did you think of the articles from Vox and the NYT? Leave a comment below!