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Is Exercise Enough?

By Terry Dunkle
Reprinted from

Like many people at high latitudes (I live in Connecticut), I find it hard to resist gaining weight in the fall. Before using DietPower, I regularly put on 20 pounds between Labor Day and New Year's. My theory is that some of us have a groundhog gene that triggers release of a brain chemical as the days grow shorter. "Hey, it's getting cold outside!" says the brain to the stomach. "Food shortage coming! Better fatten up!"

The truth is, of course, that most of us have more to eat in winter, what with the holidays, Aunt Betty's ham loaf, Uncle Roy's homemade wine, and all. In other words, our instincts are precisely the opposite of what they should be at this time of year.

Controlling my weight may be easier than usual this fall, however. Last New Year's Eve, I resolved to walk or run 3.5 miles daily this year. So far, I've run that distance every day. Now I'm wondering: Can I prevent the autumn gain with exercise alone? Can you?

Beating Lance Armstrong

While tending the campfire I built on my driveway the night of the famous August 2003 blackout, I got to thinking about Soylent Green, a sci-fi movie released in 1973 during the Arab oil embargo. Set in 2022, the film describes a resource-depleted world where Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson share a tiny apartment powered by a stationary bicycle hooked to a generator.

Could you really power your household with a bicycle? Not a chance. The average American uses 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day—equivalent to 26,000 calories. That's three times the daily energy expended by Lance Armstrong in a Tour de France.

We're not trying to beat Armstrong, however—we just want to prevent a one-pound-per-week weight gain. And according to DietPower, a week of running at my weight and speed burns almost exactly 3500 calories—the equivalent of one pound of body weight. (To find out how many calories your workout will burn, use DietPower's exercise dictionary. If you don't have a copy of DietPower, you can get a free 15-day trial by clicking here.) So I've solved the problem, right?

Wrong. My running cancels the weight gain only if I eat the same number of calories as before. And, as noted above, I actually eat more. According to my DietPower food log, my weekly calorie consumption last fall was 1750 higher than this summer. If that's true again this year, I'll gain ten pounds by New Year's.

Overblown Truths

"Wait a minute," says a little voice on my left shoulder. "Doesn't exercise raise your metabolic rate, so your body burns more calories even when you're not running? Maybe this will get rid of the ten pounds."

This argument has been repeated for decades, but according to a Washington Post column by health writer Sally Squires (among the most reliable I know), it's overblown. "Studies show that after a typical 20- to 30-minute workout, the body burns about 10 to 12 more calories—the amount in a bite of an apple," she writes.

"OK, but what about the extra muscle you're building?" the little voice says. "Doesn't muscle burn calories faster than the rest of your body?"

Once again: true but trivial. "The average enthusiast who goes into the gym puts on only three to five pounds of muscle mass over 12 to 15 weeks," David Nieman, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University, told Squires. That amount of muscle burns only 28 to 40 calories per day—the equivalent of half an apple.

The answer is clear: Running may lower my blood pressure, cholesterol, and resting pulse. It may also make me feel good. But it won't keep my weight in check if I don't watch my calorie intake. And that's why I'll continue using my Diet Power.

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