I was reluctant to resurrect the subject of John Cloud’s opinion piece/cover story "Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” from the August 9 issue of TIME Magazine. I hesitated primarily because the hoopla has pretty much died down and I didn’t want to give this sensational (in a bad way) piece any more time in the sun. Also, two IDEA members-educators (Nicki Anderson and Jonathan Ross) did an outstanding job of building such strong, elegant counterpoints in their blogs that I felt I’d just be piling on by joining the fray. But enough people have asked me to weigh in on the topic that perhaps a bit of late-in-the-game analysis is warranted.
1. IDEA’s Position. IDEA’s position on the many benefits of exercise (which includes weight loss) is woven into the very fabric of 27 years of content dedicated to educating fitness professionals on the science of exercise and its practical applications. We have never wavered in our stance and, furthermore, we don’t feel it’s productive to raise a rant against Mr. Cloud’s and TIME’s clearly distorted presentation on the topic.
What IDEA will do is continue providing you with the industry’s highest quality education through our various award-winning publications, educational products and conferences. Educating you is the best way we know to set such nonsense straight in the minds of confused consumers.
As far as official action, in mid-August IDEA joined a coalition of about 20 fitness organizations brought together by the ACSM and signed a collective statement to Mark Halperin, TIME’s editor at large. The statement strongly supported the benefits of physical activity and underscored the importance of exercise not only to weight loss, but to overall health.
An excerpt from the letter: “Exercise is, indeed, a crucial part of the weight-loss equation. Activity and proper nutrition are both necessary keys to both shedding pounds and maintaining a healthy weight. As reported at the recent “Weight of the Nation” conference, held by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity accounts for some $147 billion in annual U.S. health care costs. At such a crucial economic time, we should be encouraging behaviors that reduce these costs, not further increasing them by promoting sedentary lifestyles. Perhaps even more important, exercise is a powerful preventive tool that can yield benefits far beyond weight loss…”
The letter ended by encouraging TIME to highlight these benefits in future stories, in order to give readers a balanced and accurate understanding of the factors that lead to optimum health.
2. A Journalist’s Perspective. Cloud’s piece lacked balance and ignored volumes of research that would have easily refuted his ham-handed attempt to bolster his argument that exercise cannot help people lose weight. The piece also fell short on journalistic integrity: As reported by the Los Angeles Times, one expert quoted in the piece, Dr. Timothy Church, said his professional opinions were misrepresented along with a statement from the ACSM.
Personally, I was offended as a career magazine professional by TIME’s use of the cover story to ignite controversey with such an ignorant perspective. Their writer was given the ultimate mantle of influence to sway public perception in what basically amounted to a 4,000+ word blog. As we have seen, the effect of first-person anecdote combined with loosely constructed facts in a cover story for a major magazine is incredibly powerful. It’s also incredibly irresponsible—especially with regard to such inflammatory subjects such as the nation’s expanding waistline and fear and loathing of exercise. As an editor I can tell you that cover stories don’t land by happenstance, especially with circulations as enormous as TIME’s. This was a very measured move on the part of TIME’s editors and likely secured the exact bang they were looking for: high voltage buzz on the street, increased single-copy sales and a lot of eyeballs to their website. Cha-ching! Mission accomplished. End of story.
3. The Lesson: If all of this tells fitness professionals anything, it’s that our job as educators and cheerleaders for our clients is certainly more of a challenge than we ever imagined. If John Cloud is representative of how Joe and Jane Public think about diet and exercise, we either haven’t done our jobs very well, or we need to start taking a new tack on how to combat the powerful misinformation coming out of major media sources. The main point is that we can’t ever get complacent. Our industry is—YOU ARE—the last bastion of strength in this battle. We need to stand united and hold the line with excellent facts and ongoing education for ourselves and our customers. It’s frightening to say that lives depend on us doing this, but it’s the truth. Your job has more meaning and purpose than ever before.
Finally, for the substantive and scientific refuting of Cloud’s position that’s already been provided by two highly regarded industry professionals, I encourage you to read Nicki’s blog and Jonathan’s blog. Many thanks to both of them for their swift and well-reasoned responses to TIME’s article. Read both blogs and keep their logic close at hand for when your next client asks you about this or seems confused about conflicting research. (The link to the TIME piece can be found in both their blogs. If you haven’t read it yet, you really need to so you know what you’re up against.)
Most important, keep the conversation going. Talk to your colleagues and share ideas and strategies. Feed your clients constantly with research-based facts so your positive message is what they hear in their self-talk when they don’t feel like exercising or hear/read warped interpretations of exercise and diet information from the media. Don’t doubt for a moment that it doesn’t matter. Yours might be the only voice of sanity and truth in the sea of misinformation that engulfs them.