I don’t write much about the science. This is for a few reasons – including, but not limited to the following – I don’t want to motivate you with fear; I don’t want to shame you into some sort of behaviour; I don’t want to get into a discussion about what percentage of blah applies to whozit in the age range of 60 – 65; and who bases their day to day exercise choices on science, anyway? And is that any way to live?
To talk about the health benefits of training, and the science behind it, is to take it for granted that the reason to exercise is because it’s good for you. And frankly, I’m not on board with that. There’s a difference between reason and benefit. The reason for movement, for me, I believe – and I would like to put forward – is entirely personal. It may be the pure expression of human emotion (Bruce Lee liked that one) or to enjoy human physicality in a different capacity, it may be the development of athleticism, or it may simply be to move freely for the joy of free movement. All of these activities have health benefits associated with them. Of course, your reason for training might be to compensate for feeling worthless, inadequate, unmanned, weak or disgusting, and if this is the case for you, I do not believe exercise is what you need. Not now, but maybe you can get back to it later in some other way.
I love to lift heavy weights. Love it. I love to practice martial arts. I have three black belts and have won numerous medals at Australia-wide competitions, but not once – not once in my entire life – have I gone to training all fired up because I was going to stimulate insulin sensitivity in my skeletal muscle.
Not only that, indulging in attempts to change the shape of my body have crippled my motivation to train and damaged my self-confidence. That has taken some processing to work through. Becoming a personal trainer has in many ways done as much harm as good, and despite what they say - your job is not actually to look the way you think other people want you to look. But I digress.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, internally for me and the primary reason I am always somehow resistant to discussing the science – I don’t serve the patriarchy. Not my agenda. I’m all about making exercise accessible. I don’t quote a bunch of science, though I value all the vastly contradictory points of views it has blessed us with, and I appreciate logic, reasoning, intuition and all kinds of useful things – you know, whatever works for you.
But having said all that, science has helped me form a lot of the opinions I have today, and it has blessedly helped me to break down some of the prejudices I used to believe. Science has also been of much value to me when it comes to athletic progression - sets and reps and how to structure your training - I do find a lot of that science helpful. But I am guided by what I find helpful, not some overriding prejudice or perceived inadequacy, or some sort of concept to which I have been told I should adhere (I proudly eat carbs late at night, and a lot of science actually says it’s good for you, so take that), and as useful as the science has been, I still believe an intuitive approach is better for most of us - more practical both for development and training longevity. What good is the perfect program if you despise it, if it makes you feel trapped and you never train?
All that having been said (take two), here are some links to some interesting things:
Remembering The Minnesota Starvation Experiment. This was one of the first articles I read about the damage that dieting can do. It messed these guys up, seriously, and they were consuming fairly generous amounts of calories compared to modern mainstream diet practices. They had to re-feed with massive amounts of food for months on end to undo the damage the semi-starvation diet caused.
Why Diets Make You Fatter And What To Do About It. While not a journal article, it’s a great piece, logically written, and it strikes a chord with my own personal experience, and the experience of many, many people I know. Been dieting for ten years? Fatter now than you were before? You’re not alone.
On Obesity, What the Researchers Didn't Find has some very interesting (I think exciting) things to say, including: “what makes these two studies from GUTS significant is that the researchers couldn't even find a connection between soda or snack (ice cream, candy, chips, sweet baked goods, etc.) consumption and weight among these kids after 3 years. In other words, fat children weren't eating more sweets than thin children.”
Medicare’s Search For Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not The Answer – this article finds diets ineffective in the long term and the authors cannot recommend Medicare fund a treatment with such poor outcomes. Not only that, “the studies do not provide consistent evidence that dieting results in signiﬁcant health improvements, regardless of weight change”.
And interestingly, shocking and objectionable I know – I’ve had a few arguments about this one – this population-based observational study shows “the mortality risk of diabetes was lower among both obese and severely obese persons than among those in lower BMI categories”. Fat diabetics died less than thin ones. Also, they found that “obesity was not associated with increased mortality risk”. Food for thought, that one. But if it seems unconvincing, this article from the New York Times is saying the same things: “in study after study, overweight and moderately obese patients with certain chronic diseases often live longer and fare better than normal-weight patients with the same ailments”.
Speaking of the New York Times, this article examines a significant study which finds calorie restriction is not associated with increased longevity. I found that to be particularly interesting, because all the time people are saying things like - look, these dieting mice live longer - and what I always wondered was where the line is? Starvation kills you faster than eating does, so how much starvation exactly is supposed to be good for you? And when so many people in first-world nations only eat once or twice a day, struggle to lose weight, and spend so much energy repressing cravings, I cannot concede that more restriction is what we need. I prefer the opposite approach: if in doubt, eat more.
Here’s one from the sciency-inclined press - it appears that hunter-gatherers did not expend more energy than we do, so that raises questions about many things. Is it our concept of calories and metabolic function that’s skewed? Maybe the reason exercise is good for us has nothing at all to do with expenditure?
This wonderfully detailed article from JunkFoodScience (check out the website, it makes for great and extensive reading, you can trawl through many hours-worth of fascinating content) discusses a rather massive study (more than 7 years, 48,835 participants). “During the last years of the trial and at the end, the researchers found an insignificant difference in weight changes between the intervention and control group of a mere 0.7 kg”. Several years of dieting for less than a kilogram of weight loss? That doesn’t quite seem worthwhile to me. Yes, there are other reasons to be mindful about what you eat, but that’s called mindful eating, and that isn’t about adopting a shotgun low-fat or calorie restriction approach. And if you want to read the original study, here it is.
I’ve frequently heard elitist health and fitness enthusiasts say stuff like “maybe if people felt worse about the shit they put in their mouths they’d make better food choices” – to which I can only think – you’re basing your training and nutritional programming and motivational techniques on a maybe? Because what if the opposite is true? There’s a wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary: “it is apparent that, as with other stigmas, weight stigma has negative implications for public health. Weight stigma threatens the psychological and physical health of obese individuals, impedes the implementation of effective efforts to prevent obesity, and exacerbates health disparities”.
Maybe we need to do more studies, but I personally don’t believe we need to be told by science to be nice to each other. What the hell?
But it’s also quite obvious when you stop to think about it – weight stigma harms people of all sizes.
The Butterfly Foundation has some interesting stats about eating disorders that you can find here.
Studies like some of these, as well as reviews and opinion pieces I’ve read – they started to change the way I think about health. Yeah, you can argue these points, but I did provide you with a whole bunch of links, and there’s also a link to a graph if you keep on reading. And if you have never read anything by The Fat Nutritionist, you can go visit there and read everything she ever wrote about anything. And while we’re on it, check out the revolutionary Dances With Fat - I particularly liked this article about stress and stigma - and if you’ve never heard of Linda Bacon or Health At Every Size or Ellyn Satter, it’s high time you did.
And my particular sense of ethics - more recently I really started to question whether or not someone’s health is anyone else’s business. It can be quite hard to work out what really is the responsibility of an individual. There are bigger issues being avoided here – blaming an individual for their sickness “obscures and distracts from the social conditions that contribute to disease”. Read more.
And now, even without these studies, the truth has become more and more apparent to me – you can’t hate someone thin, you can’t change someone for their own good, and anyway – this handy graph indicates that for your health, you’re better off being fit and obese than you are thin and unfit, so what more science do we need? The fact that they could find fit, fat people to include in this one reveals that training doesn’t automatically, magically make you thin, and we all know we’re better off training... And it’s well known that there is no weight-class you can be in that’s worse for you than smoking, yet still people smoke because they think it’ll keep them thin.
The problem is not that we don’t know training’s good for us, or that smoking is bad, or whatever. A lack of knowledge is not what makes exercise and improved health inaccessible, but a lack of self-knowledge may be. Also, jerks make exercise and medicine inaccessible. I am not opposed to blaming jerks for being jerks.
And there are other issues too, but they are subjects for blogging.