Of course you can outrun your fork!

posted in: Health, How to human | 9

Some errors are so grave, it takes an expert to make them – and uncritical journalists and motivated reasoners to repeat them.

For example, the soundbite that “You can’t outrun your fork”. You know, because thermodynamics isn’t a thing, or doesn’t apply to humans, who are obviously magic.

thermo

Of course you can outrun your fork. You just have to run for more than ten minutes.

The claim that exercise isn’t freely scaleable to deal with basically any calorie intake denies basic physics, and is endemic to a sub-group of mainly American nutritionists, the results of whose work speak for themselves, and misery-spreading tabloid dumps and purveyors of unhappiness such as HuffPost, which would cease to exist were their readership – mostly women – to become healthy, happy and sexually satisfied.

Their claim is, of course, desperately at odds with not just personal experience and observation of everybody who actually exercises, but also physics.

In this piece, some dude who made a living out of selling the illusion of fitness to nerds while pushing pseudoscientific bullshit (see debunking of the paleo diet here) tragically proclaims: “See if you can justify to yourself having to run a HALF-EFFING-MARATHON because you ate an extra 1500 calories worth of crap today“.

And I say: ONLY? Awesome! A half marathon is two morning jogs. Bring on the guilt-free pizza!

Recreational runners do that on a normal weekend.

His error, of course, is assuming that running a half marathon isn’t what you should be doing anyway. He’s got things the wrong way around, and in true Anglosaxon fashion, assumes exercise is penance for dietary sins. In reality, exercise is what you do by default, which among numerous other benefits enables you to eat whatever the fuck you want. He’s on a credit mentality. Enjoy and pay back. I’m on a debit mentality. Create a surplus and do whatever the fuck you want.

Let’s rephrase the question: “See if you can justify to yourself wanting to kill yourself at every meal because you didn’t want to have to move your ass and go for a run.”

Then there’s this gem: “Exercise makes you fat!”.

Presumably in the way that turning your lights on creates coal, uranium and heavy winds, and spending money makes you richer – I hereby coin the term “Keynesian thermodynamics”.

The question how anyone can even say that kind of bullshit puzzled me, until I realized how exactly they are wrong (the question was never whether):

It’s because their idea of exercise doesn’t involve sweat.

When they say “exercise won’t balance out a bad diet“, they mean that two half-hour sessions a week of hiding in the back of a Zumba class won’t. Which is, of course, correct.

But that’s not exercise. It’s, like, token effort at best, that alibists undertake to have plausible deniability how they just “Can’t seem to lose weight”.

exer2

What appears extreme to the lazy (=”I want an excuse not to do that because it looks hard”) is in fact the baseline of actual exercise.

exer1

You can outrun any diet. I know this for a fact, because I used to run 50-100K a week for years, and one thing that immediately struck me about the subculture was how many people have the bodies of classical Greek statues while subsisting exclusively on pizza, nutella and beer.

Of course, they have to. With energy requirements like this, anything below 4000 calories a day would kill them.

For fuck’s sake, I, the laziest being in the known universe, did this for years. This is how I looked:

pizza

Pizza, beer + moderate exercise.

(Don’t worry, I bulked up in the meantime)

There are two possible explanations:

  1. An alarming number of “health experts”, self-help blogs and journalists have no idea what actual exercise is.
  2. I’m friends with mutant superhumans, and probably one myself.

(These options are not mutually exclusive.)

Exercise begins where comfort ends.

The people for whom exercise “doesn’t work” are those who stop exercising when it starts to hurt – i.e. work.

If 50-100K a week sounds like a lot, just do the math and realize it means an hour of jogging a day, which is in line with official recommendations:

If you don’t (yet) fully trust me, maybe you will take it from Harvard scientists.

It’s also something like 10 000 calories, which is more than half of what most people eat in a week.

Please tell me again how it’s impossible to outrun a normal western diet.

You don’t have to win ultramarathons. But if you want to see great results, you need to actually move your ass a bit beyond your comfort zone. If you run 10K a few times a week – an entirely reasonable regimen – you can eat anything and be in great shape.

Contrary to the theories of alibists and fat-enablers, it is a simple matter of thermodynamics. It cannot not be.

Yes, there’s a ton of factors – age, gut microbiome, genetics – that can slant the equation one way or the other, but there is nothing that could fundamentally override it.

Calories in – calories out. There’s nothing more to it.

Whether you can outrun any diet was never the question. What is a legitimate question is whether there are more effort-efficient ways to fitness than having wedding cakes for brunch and running daily marathons.

Yes.

Given that weight is a matter of simple thermodynamics, you can focus on reducing input just as well as on increasing output, or any combination.

There are different mixes, some of which are better than others, and that, crucially, lead to different physiques.

You can achieve dramatic results with diet alone, but you will end up with the most dreaded physique of all – skinnyfat – and want to kill yourself the whole time.

There’s only so much kale a man can take ’fore the mind breaks.

Or you can properly exercise three days a week, eat what you want, look amazing AND feel amazing.

Intensive exercise changes everything in your body for the better – weight, cardiovascular health, better bone density, brain health, improved muscle tone, anti-depressive and anti-anxiety effects on par with the best psychiatric medication, improved sex drive, more energy…

Any mix that includes moderate-to-heavy exercise beats the shit out of miserablist diet-first emulations of subsaharan famines.

Eating nutella-stuffed wildebeest thrice a day and running daily marathons to burn it off is not the optimal mix, it is not the easiest way, and it definitely isn’t compatible with the concept of exercise lifestyle magazines have, but it is a legitimate, healthy, and commonly practiced option nonetheless.

For best results, address both sides of the equation. Obviously. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact there is anybody idiotic enough to say exercise isn’t important, or even necessary to be actually healthy (rather than just thin).

I don’t know what’s gained by trying to convince people that exercise doesn’t work and change isn’t possible. I don’t know who stands to gain from spreading a mentality of helplessness and promoting attitudes that prevent real results.

The optimal mix is moderate-to-high-intensity exercise coupled with relatively modest dietary adjustments.

In any case, there is a non-zero amount of pushing your comfort zone to do if you want to be in shape.

The lack of shortcuts and magic bullets feels disheartening to some people, because the search is how they procrastinate on actually living a healthy lifestyle.

But it’s really good news, because it means no special knowledge is needed and the keys to fitness are banal and known to everyone everywhere.

Eat less.
Move more.
That’s it.

Here’s my one-point program to help you achieve your dream body:

  1. Update your standards of what constitutes exercise.

If you want to be healthy, you should buy me a protein shake, because there’s no causal connection between these two things.

And (re-)read this.

  • Al Billington

    the idea behind “you can’t outrun the fork” is not that it it impossible, its that it is a lot easier to cut out shitty food than it is to start running marathons. Obviously it is possible to lose weight through exercise alone. But getting into good enough shape to exercise sufficiently to outrun the diet is a much more difficult path to weight loss than developing better eating habits.

  • Sibirian Blue

    People are inherently lazy, I think theOatmeal outlined why any sane person would exercise along the similar lines too.

    Also the ‘the gem’ did say that people overeat – over reward themselves – after the exercise. Which negates the point of exercise-is-bad-for-you a but, anyway. (Anyway, referring to Daily mail? Really? Really?)

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      I read these things in The Times and then scramble to find an alternate source that’s not behind a paywall. Not always pretty, I admit, but it usually links to the original research.

  • Lyle McDonald

    When someone can eat 3000 calories in a meal at a buffet, do the math on how much exercise is needed to counteract that? Then compare it to usual exercise levels. It’s not a function of what is being recommended but by
    a. what most will and actually do in the real world

    b. the realities of what most can eat in a sitting

    b always > a

  • Brrr

    Great points with respect to the so-called experts doing everyone a disservice by not emphasizing intensity when they talk about exercise. When they bray about “moderate activity for 20 minutes, three times a week”, I cringe.

    One nit-pick though:

    Cycling to work is not exercise? Doesn’t that depend far more on the distance and intensity of the ride rather than the destination? 200km/week at 25-40 km/hr is a lot more exercise than jogging 30-100 km/week, and I lost over 40 lbs doing it. OK, sure, I was weight training and doing interval sprints too, but that’s not the point — cycling absolutely can be intense exercise, and you most certainly can outride your fork as much as you can outrun it!

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      Totally depends on the distance and rider, correct.

      Brain fart. I’ve hastily worked with a limited reference group of people who live 10-20 minutes of biking away from work and can’t change clothes. That essentially amounts to the equivalent of a walk and indeed doesn’t constitute exercise.

      Of course, if you live an hour away and can afford to arrive drenched, you hardly need to do anything else to have the butt of an angel.

      • Brrr

        Agreed on all points Zbyněk. If you don’t need to bring a change of clothes and a towel with you on your bike ride to work, you’re not working hard enough!

    • Lyle McDonald

      People won’t exercise in general and you think they will exercise INTENSELY? You’re out of your mind.

      • Brrr

        Lots of people exercise intensely. Those people are generally in good shape.
        Lots of other people don’t exercise intensely too, but those people are generally fat.