Conventional wisdom says that aerobic exercise (combined with cutting calories) is the best way to lose weight. But millions of people have logged hours on elliptical machines and stationary bikes without dropping any pounds. This means that either (a) losing weight takes a lot more effort than most people expect, or (b) we’ve been misled and there’s a much better way to lose weight. Strength training is often proposed as that “better way”—though the evidence strongly suggests the real answer is (a).
It’s true that increasing your physical activity levels can make you feel hungrier, but the same is true of eating less. Your body will respond to any change that results in you taking in fewer calories than you burn with a series of physiological and behavioral tactics that conspire to keep you at your current weight. That’s why almost none of the weight-loss interventions that have been tested in clinical trials achieve losses that the majority of participants sustain beyond a few years. It’s not just exercising to lose weight that’s hard—it’s losing weight by any means.
A calorie is a calorie is a calorie, according to the old-school, keep-it-simple school of nutritional thinking. But as we’ve seen, good health is a little more complicated than just matching the calories you eat to the calories you burn.
The contradictions are endless, and the real message is that there’s no single tactic that makes losing weight easy for everyone.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about weight loss. On the contrary, researchers are teasing apart the complex links between diet, physical activity, hormones, and fat storage.
Understanding how different types of exercise and eating patterns affect the body will help you plot a weight-loss strategy tailored to your needs and avoid common misconceptions like the myth of the “fat-burning” zone. More importantly, it’s now clear that being thin and being healthy aren’t always the same thing—so the success of your exercise regime should be measured by aerobic fitness, not the bathroom scale.
One of the classic problems with exercise is that those who most need its health benefits sometimes have the greatest difficulty doing it. If you have osteoarthritis, your joints hurt; if you’re battling obesity, the impact forces will put you at risk of injury; if you’re a senior, you could break bones in a fall. A common solution to this problem is to exercise in the water, often in the form of water aerobics or aquafit group classes. There’s no doubt that this lower-impact approach helps reduce some of the risks of exercise for at-risk groups, but it’s only recently that researchers have started to ask whether it really provides the same benefits as land-based workouts.
One of the recurring themes in coverage of the 2008 Olympics was that old people can be just as strong and fast as their juniors. At 41 years of age, swimmer Dara Torres won three silver medals; marathon runner Constantina Tomescu-Dita won gold at 38; and 61-year-old Ian Millar picked up a remarkable silver medal in the team equestrian event. But it’s not entirely clear what lessons the average middle-aged or elderly exerciser can draw from these one-of-a-kind models.
ATTITUDES TOWARD EXERCISE AND AGING have changed dramatically in recent decades, as shown by 73-year-old Ed Whitlock’s record-setting sub-three-hour marathon in 2004. His time of 2:54:48 wasn’t just fast for an old guy—he placed 26th out of more than 1,400 finishers. The aging body is capable of much more than we once believed, but study after study has shown that we have to “use it or lose it.” As a result, researchers are busy figuring out what kinds of exercise are best for keeping our bodies and minds young.
The answer to this question seems obvious: if you’re sick, your body needs its strength to fight off the infection. But exercise is a deeply entrenched habit for many people, so when illness strikes, they want to know if they can exercise without doing themselves harm.
There’s one big problem with studying the effectiveness of massage: you can’t control for the placebo effect. “It’s not something where you can do a double-blind experiment,” admits Trish Schiedel, past president of the Canadian Sports Massage Therapists Association. So you often see results like the ones published in 2008 by researchers at the Poznan University of Medical Sciences in Poland.
How long should I stay off it and will a post-exercise ice bath help me recover more quickly after an injury?
Not surprisingly, contact sports like hockey and rugby cause the most injuries among adolescent boys (soccer and basketball lead the way for adolescent girls).
But non-contact sports are capable of producing overuse conditions like tennis elbow and runner’s knee. By some estimates, in fact, a staggering 70 percent of recreational runners get an injury in any given year. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that occasional injuries are an inescapable part of exercise—but with the right care, you can make a rapid return to full strength.