I’m in London totally immersed in RW’s coverage of the Olympic Games, but I just noticed today’s New York Times Phys Ed column titled “Diet vs Exercise for Weight Loss,” and it’s bothering me a little. I think it amounts to a straw-man argument in positing that we all believe exercise and weight-loss will lead to a higher basal metabolic rate.
We do? I don’t think so. Your basal (or resting) metabolic rate is directly tied to your weight. If you gain weight, your metabolic rate rises. If you lose weight, your metabolic rate falls. This is all part of the body’s elegant plan to keep your weight more or less stable, because stable is healthy. Or at least it was throughout most of our several million years on Earth.
For decades the weightlifting crowd tried to convince us that adding a few pounds of muscle would actually help you “burn calories all day and all night long” or some words to that effect. This has been roundly debunked in recent years. Muscles don’t boost your metabolic rate, not to any meaningful degree. Of course, strength-training is still good for you.
Your basal metabolic rate is important because it does determine how many calories you burn all day long, whether sleeping, processing food (the thermic effect of food), or exercising. Most runners understand that a 200-lb runner burns roughly twice as many calories per mile as a 100-lb runner. That’s because metabolism is directly tied to your weight.
If the 200-lb runner then loses 50 lbs, he/she is also going to lose 25 percent of the calorie-burn per mile. Nothing can change this (except wearing a 50-lb backpack while you run.) Additional proof that losing weight decreases your metabolic rate. It just happens; don’t worry about it.
I do agree with The Times that cutting food calories is a more effective way to lose weight than adding exercise calories. I would note that doing both at the same time could be the most effective way of all. But you have to do both in such a manner that they become lifelong habits. Otherwise you’ll just yo-yo up and down.
Lastly it’s very, very important to point out that it’s okay—in fact, it’s great—to become a regular exerciser even if you don’t lose weight. Fitness is more important than fatness in its effect on many chronic diseases.
It’s not easy to be thin in today’s obesogenic western world environment. But it is easy to be fit, if you just work at it for 30 to 60 minutes a day on most days of the week. Walk, run, bike, swim, lift weights, etc.
The payoff comes from getting fitter, not from trying to manipulate your metabolism.

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