The New York Times Wants You to Do Cardio.

So I guess I’m a couple of days late in posting this response, since the article in question, “Weight-Loss Theory Is Losing Some of Its Strength”, was in last Thursday’s New York Times. A quick synopsis of the article for those of you who haven’t gotten around to reading it: Martica Heaner writes that you can’t lose weight through strength training alone, gives a couple of studies to support her theories, and makes the conclusion that you should do cardio to lose weight (big surprise there).

Why does this article piss me off? Well, aside from the fact that it challenges my favorite assertion (i.e., you don’t need cardio to lose weight), it does so in a misleading fashion. And that Bill Kraemer (not one of my favorite guys anyway) is quoted in the article, giving it an air of legitimacy.


Ok, so here goes my lengthy rebuttal of the points made in the article:

1) Joe Donnelly of the Energy Balance Lab at the University of Kansas is quoted, “Even if weight training increases muscle and metabolism, there is little evidence showing that it is enough to cause weight loss.”

Well, there’s no “even if”. Proper weight training does increase muscle and metabolism – as is described later in the article (!). Whether it is enough to cause weight loss is a matter of caloric balance; in other words, diet, the role of which is dramatically understated in the article.

2) “Her trainer advised her to lift four times a week, cut her cardiovascular exercise to less than 30 minutes but still keep dieting. After six weeks, she was frustrated to find she had gained two pounds. That added weight probably wasn’t muscle.”

How does the author know? Most untrained individuals do gain weight during the initial phase of a strength training program, but it doesn’t mean that they gained fat. Often, especially if they have significant weight to lose, a neophyte will post a net weight gain due to the fact that the amount of muscle gained outpaced the amount of fat lost. Many women especially report that after they embark on a strength training program, they weigh more, but fit in clothing that is sizes smaller than when they first began lifting weights – in other words, they gained significant muscle, and lost significant fat.

Let’s say all it together, folks,”WHO CARES WHAT YOU WEIGH?” It’s how much fat you have that counts against you – that’s the number you should be fanatical about.

The individual in this snippet was lifting four times a week, but was it supervised? Was she training properly, in a progressive and intense manner (probably not, if she was doing it four days a week)? Or was she using low weight and a million reps? The article mentions that when this individual returned to cardio, she lost the added weight – well, good for her, but is weight really what you want to lose, or just fat?

3) “Given that one pound of muscle burns between 7 to 13 calories a day (as determined by studies that measured oxygen and blood flow to tissues), that means the average boost in metabolism is only 14 to 52 calories a day…”

First off, I’d like to posit that a properly training female will gain significantly more than 2 pounds of muscle after six months of training. But forget all that, let’s use the numbers given by the article.

14 times 365 days = 5110 calories burned in a year. That’s the equivalent of nearly a pound and a half of fat.
52 times 365 days = 18980 calories burned in a year. That’s the equivalent of nearly 5.5 pounds of fat.

All for doing nothing (only additional calorie burn due to having added muscle). Factor in the additional calories burned performing the strength training and all of a sudden, the “calorie burn and metabolism boost” doesn’t look as insignificant anymore.

Keep in mind that an individual doing cardio to burn fat is missing out on this effect, since cardio produces little to negative muscle gain – in other words, exercisers performing only cardio are shooting themselves in the foot by potentially lowering their metabolism. Without the signal that muscle is needed (strength training), the body excises muscle tissue in addition to fat to supply the energy needed to run itself. Not to mention all the health detriments of losing muscle. Losing muscle is a losing proposition.

4)The University of Pittsburg study results – “In the end, those who lifted weights or practiced yoga lost as much weight and fat – but no more – than those who only dieted and walked.”

Just for your understanding, all the women in the study were on a 1200-1500 calorie diet, which does not appear to have been standardized.

I think what best illustrates the usefulness of this study is the next sentence in the article: “Surprisingly, many of the women became no stronger.” Hmm. If they became no stronger, is it likely they increased their muscle mass? How about no? If they didn’t increase their muscle mass, is it likely that they would see an added metabolic boost (calorie burn)? How about no? Is this study useless for the comparison then? How about yes?

The lead researcher of this study, Kara Gallagher, pretty much sums it up: “We were looking at whether women would stick to the routine, and if so, would they resistance train intensely enough…It appears many did not.“(Emphasis added)

Improperly performed strength training strikes again.

4) “Shannan Catlett…After she lost 50 pounds by using the elliptical machine and treadmill and by following a healthier diet, she improved her muscle definition with weights. ‘I never lost weight from strength training, but my butt got smaller and I got stronger and firmer all over.'”(Emphasis added)

It’s probably safe to say that she’d be unlikely to lose additional weight after the 50 pounds she’d already lost through her previous exercise and diet. But good for her that she got positive results from strength training, i.e., lost fat. Otherwise, how did her butt get smaller?

Look, I may be making a mountain out of a molehill, but to me, the biggest problem facing the fitness industry is misinformation – and the biggest fable of them all is, “You need to do cardio to lose fat.” If losing muscle wasn’t a given after one turns 30, if most forms of chronic illness weren’t exacerbated by inability to move, if low back and neck problems weren’t so pervasive in this country, and if more people strength trained properly, then I wouldn’t care so much. But I feel that an article of this nature does more harm than good.

But at least it points out that lifting tiny weights for a million reps is worthless. Thank you for that, NY Times.

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