Could pushing people to exercise more actually be contributing to our obesity problem? In some respects, yes. Because exercise depletes not just the body's muscles but the brain's self-control "muscle" as well, many of us will feel greater entitlement to eat a bag of chips during that lazy time after we get back from the gym. This explains why exercise could make you heavier — or at least why even my wretched four hours of exercise a week aren't eliminating all my fat. It's likely that I am more sedentary during my nonexercise hours than I would be if I didn't exercise with such Puritan fury. If I exercised less, I might feel like walking more instead of hopping into a cab; I might have enough energy to shop for food, cook and then clean instead of ordering a satisfyingly greasy burrito.
The problem ultimately is about not exercise itself but the way we've come to define it. Many obesity researchers now believe that very frequent, low-level physical activity — the kind humans did for tens of thousands of years before the leaf blower was invented — may actually work better for us than the occasional bouts of exercise you get as a gym rat. "You cannot sit still all day long and then have 30 minutes of exercise without producing stress on the muscles," says Hans-Rudolf Berthoud, a neurobiologist at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center who has studied nutrition for 20 years. "The muscles will ache, and you may not want to move after. But to burn calories, the muscle movements don't have to be extreme. It would be better to distribute the movements throughout the day."
The article makes it clear that exercise is linked to appetite, and it even suggests that exercise is linked to rest. It doesn't explain that exercise is linked to sleep or our appetite for stillness. Chinese Martial Arts, Health, Daoism 101 tells us that exercise, food, rest and sleep function as four interacting appetites. Change one, and you change the others. The quickest, most effective way to stimulate hunger is to exercise. So yeah, intense vigorous exercise is likely to make you want to eat more. It's also likely to make you crave stillness and help you sleep. These four regulate each other!
The article talks about people forcing themselves to run or do short bursts of burn and sweat at the gym. In my book, that's a sure sign of a problem. Exercise should be something you have an appetite for. If you're healthy, your body will tell you how much exercise you need and how vigorous it should be. I pop out of bed in the morning with an appetite to stand still for an hour in the dark cool air, followed by a couple hours of qigong and baguazhang. If that's not enough my body will tell me by giving me ants-in-my-pants later in the day.
Burning-out your muscles three or four days a week at the gym will de-regulate your appetites! Similarly, if you stay up late and drinking beer, the next morning you'll want to move less. I don't mean to make it sound simple or easy. We humans have social appetites too! And competitive appetites, and most of us have an occasional craving for the taste of risk and danger. How we manage all of this stuff together, as a single subject, is the field of study. Chinese Martial Arts is social, and sometimes dangerous. It helps us find our natural appitite for stillness and it gives us a context for cultivating it. It enlivens our sensitivity to how different foods make us feel, move, and sleep.
How intense should a workout be? It's a tough question to answer because it has to match up with everything else you are doing. From age 18 to 30 I worked out 8 hours a day: Kungfu, dance and bicycle riding in between. I did that much because I wanted to, because it felt like the right amount of movement. But would it have been possible to focus all that energy into something more conventional like working the floor of the Stock Market? Maybe.
The beauty of Internal Martial Arts is that as we get older, we can still get the intensity of circulation and whole body stimulation without sweating. That's right, I try not to sweat three month out of the year. Traditionally, Spring time is the only season internal martial artists break a sweat. The muscles and sinews can all be moved around and animated without having to scrunch up your face with exertion, strain or pain.
I like that the author of the Time article mentions her tendency toward "Puritan fury." We ignore our ideas about what we think we are at our own peril. If you have an appetite for self-torture, for instance, it's a lot healthier to get that out of the way in a poorly aligned horse stance between 6 and 7 AM than it is to bring it with you to your job, or take it home to your kids.