This Daily Mail article has been getting around -- it's a popular-press take on the theme "exercise can make you fat."
I am always kind of interested in how this particular idea gets reported in the popular press, because it strikes me that the tone is very important. Too much emphasis on the difficulty of losing weight through exercise alone, and the article can come across as saying "Why even bother increasing your activity when it is going to make weight loss harder?"
And if the article suggests tips for encouraging weight loss while exercising, it runs the risk of making exercise seem even more complicated by introducing extra "rules" to worry about. The Daily Mail article, for example, suggests
- Choosing "fairly vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running or cycling," over weight training
- Fasting for two to four hours before a workout
- Instead of energy bars or energy drinks, consume "a bowl of porridge a couple of hours before a workout" and drink a half-liter (think two glasses, folks) of water with a tiny pinch of salt an hour before and during exercise. (Well, being Brits, the Mail also suggested drinking "squash" as an alternative to water. This confused me momentarily, but Wikipedia is here to help you.)
- Choose intense, 20- to 30-minute workouts over longer, more leisurely ones.
There is not a whole lot here, but I think the article could have been a little more helpful by repackaging it to counteract some of the most-often-perceived barriers to exercise.
- You need less time than you might think for a good workout. A 20-minute, vigorous workout might be as effective as a much longer one.
- You don't need to have eaten anything just before a workout.
- Skip the energy bars and energy drinks. Drink water.
Anyway, it seems a good enough time for me to reiterate my personal advice regarding the interaction of exercise with nutritional behavior.
- Don't start an exercise program and a food-restriction program at the same time. Pick one and spend a few months on it before adding the other.
- I recommend starting with exercise. If you're starting from sedentary, begin with either two 20-minute sessions a week, or 5 minutes every day -- whichever makes more sense depending on what you are doing and what fits into your schedule. Work up gradually from there. "Gradually" means "slowly enough to give your life a chance to remold around the exercise sessions as a permanent feature of your schedule."
- Evaluate your progress in the fitness program based on performance, not loss of weight or inches. You are not allowed to quit or change your fitness program because of any observations whatsoever about weight gain/loss.
- The first metric of performance is "Did I show up for my scheduled session or not?" Once you have "showing up" pretty well down pat, you can move on to the second metric, which is "Did I finish my session?" After that is established, then you can work on lengthening the sessions, up to some sustainable, schedule-able level that allows enough time to work on performance. (Say, 45 minutes twice a week, or 20 minutes 5 days a week.) Then you can start increasing intensity.
- Expect that adding exercise to your life will disrupt your appetite, but don't worry about it -- except, maybe, to repeat to yourself affirmations like "Energy bars are just expensive candy, and energy drinks are just expensive soda."
- A few months of showing up to your sessions and finishing your sessions, maybe even having worked them up to longer sessions and started to improve your performance, will have put you in a very different frame of mind. You don't anymore regard exercise as a bizarre anomaly of the schedule that gives you license to have a bunch of extra snacks just because you exercised today. When you get to that point -- when exercising really feels normal, whether you do it every day or only a few days a week -- that is a good time to add in some kind of attentive nutrition program. Hold steady on the exercise habit, and begin.
- If your exercise habit slips, back off on the food restriction. Also vice versa. Change one thing at a time.
It isn't terribly scientific, but I can't see how it can hurt, considering that exercise has so many known benefits going for it even without weight loss, and (unlike diet-induced weight loss) exercise-induced performance improvement is something much closer to your direct control.