What is Gary Taubes’ position on exercise?

Filed under: Interviews — @ September 24, 2008

Gary Taubes clarifies what his views are about exercise

Gary TaubesThere’s been quite a lively debate within the low-carb community over the past year about the role of exercise while engaged in a low-carb diet. One side says that the low-carb lifestyle is improved and enhanced by the addition of regular cardiovascular as well as resistance training workouts because they can help condition the body and burn more stored fat. The other side believes cardio exercise is irrelevant for weight loss and that the only real effective means for burning fat is interval training and/or focused muscle-building workouts. There is some middle ground there, but for the most part the issue has people in the camp of one side or another.

I guess we have none other than New York Times science journalist and bestselling author Gary Taubes to blame for sparking this conversation ever since the release of his nutritional masterpiece last September entitled Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes has been going around the country giving lectures espousing the major points from his book in the past year. While all of us who have been livin’ la vida low-carb can accept and understand the science behind the detrimental role that carbohydrate has played in obesity and disease, it’s what Taubes has written and said about exercise that is most controversial.

I asked Gary Taubes to clarify his position about exercise since there seems to be some confusion about what he wrote in his book and has been talking about in his lectures.

If you lower insulin levels and start losing weight — i.e. liberating fatty acids from your fat tissue and burning them for fuel — that can give you the energy you need to exercise. As I said in “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” this could be what the pre-WW II metabolism types called ” the impulse to physical activity.” Suddenly you have fuel to burn and so you’re motivated to go out and burn it.

The question then is what is cause and what is effect? Are you losing weight because you’re exercising or exercising because you’re losing weight? Even though you might be personally convinced it’s the former, you can never know for sure. As I said in my book, much of our behavior is determined by changes in our physiological state. Lower insulin levels free up fuel you never had available before and you decide to begin an exercise program–this is a reasonable series of events, a reasonable hypothesis.

The only real way to test it would be to do a randomized controlled-trial and those are difficult to interpret because as soon as you instruct people to exercise or diet in these kinds of studies you get all kinds of unpredictable psychological and interventional effects. The trials that have been done suggest that exercise has no effect. And as I pointed out in my article in New York Magazine, the world is full of plenty of people who exercise diligently and continue to gain weight from year to year, including several of the world authorities on exercise and weight loss.

If you look at animal studies, it’s pretty clear that animals respond to exercise by eating more and the exercise has no effect on fat accumulation. And while it’s true that part of the job of fattening geese and cattle is immobilizing them, it’s not clear that those examples are relevant to real life. It’s not that I don’t think exercise is good for you because, Lord knows, I do enough of it — as my back and my arthritic knees will attest. I’m just not so sure that the causality goes in the direction that you think it does.

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