Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 03/16/2011

Weight Loss in the Age of Magic

Back in the late 19th century, some of the most educated and progressive people of the age believed in spiritualism. That is, they believed it was possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead, and regularly attended seances where transparently contrived bumps, breezes, and groans kept them on the edge of their chairs.

Mary Roach, in a book called Spook, explains why.

The rise of spiritualism coincided with the dawn of the electronic age. Their lives had been filled with one wonder after another: the telephone in 1876, the phonograph in 1877, and the first radio transmission of a human voice in 1900. That’s in addition to the mid-century rise in telegraph networks and continual improvements in photography.

If messages could travel thousands of miles on telegraph wires, and human voices could be recorded on discs, and pictures of the living and dead could be captured on paper, why couldn’t a medium communicate with ghosts? It wasn’t any less plausible than the technological wonders of their age.

I had a chance to witness a similar moment of magical belief the other night. For reasons that aren’t worth explaining here, I happened to be in a room with some senior citizens who believe that our local government is using electronic surveillance to determine if any of us have made home improvements that would increase the value of our property, and thus make us liable for higher taxes.

One said the surveillance is conducted by roving trucks with some kind of X-ray technology that can look through our walls. Another thought the cameras were in the sky, in planes or satellites, and peer through our roofs.

My guess: Somebody in their circle saw an article like this one, from The Telegraph of India, which reports that the Indian government is using satellite technology to map out neighborhoods and learn “the exact nature, size and location of the property” so they can determine if owners are paying their fair share of taxes.

Another article, from The Telegraph of London, says that British tax officials are using investigative powers meant to fight terrorism in their effort to catch up with tax evaders.

Then there’s this, a 10-year-old article from the Libertarian Party, which says that the DEA uses thermal sensors that can detect high-powered heat lamps used for indoor marijuana cultivation.

Now imagine if you’re a senior citizen living on a pension, perhaps someone who never used computers at work before retiring. Maybe you’ve seen Mission: Impossible and read some spy novels. And, thanks to AM radio and cable TV, you live in constant fear of the government taking away your things. (Seriously, I know an elderly couple who were so worried about the current president taking away their guns that they went out and bought one, just so they’d have a reason to be scared of the new administration taking it away.) Is it that big a stretch to believe the government is peering through your walls to see if you’ve put new shelves in your garage?

When it comes to weight loss (you knew I’d get to it eventually), the fitness world seems stuck between two contradictory absolutes: either everything works, as long as you believe in its uniquely magical properties, or nothing works, based on long-term weight-loss research showing modest results for any diet or exercise system.

We can laugh at the magical ideas — cleanses, hCG, diets that fixate on adding or deleting one spectacularly good or unfathomably evil thing. But it’s hard to offer an alternative when the highest-quality research says that nothing works a whole lot better than anything else.

We’re left with the mundane and demotivating data from the National Weight Control Registry, which tell us to eat a low-fat, low-calorie, low-sugar diet and exercise an hour or more a day into perpetuity.

Or we can devise diet and workout programs that we know will help people eat less and exercise more than they do now. We can suggest meals that increase satiety and bump up the thermic effect of feeding. We can prescribe workouts that offer the best conditioning effects in the least time.

We can’t in good conscience promise magical effects from hormonal surges or post-exercise oxygen consumption. (And I admit I’ve promised all that in years past. I meant well.) The best we can do is give them programs that chip away at their excess weight in every reasonable and ethical way possible, short of surgery or starvation.

Is that truly all we have? And is it enough?


  • Lou,

    I feel like exercise for fat loss is all about long term development, never short term bursts. That’s why I feel like most studies do a bad job. How can you account for all the variables among people with different levels of athleticism, strength, and cardiovascular power? The same exercise protocol followed by two different people in fact is not the same at all because people are at different stages of physical ability. That is also why I feel a long term fat loss program should never be about fat loss… rather, it should be about improving physical ability enough so that when it comes time for the short term bursts, they are that much more effective.

  • Tim, great points. For those who don’t recognize Tim’s name, he’s author of The Theory of Fat Loss (http://thetheoryoffatloss.blogspot.com/), which advocates what he just described: develop greater strength and physical capacity, and weight control becomes much easier. When your body can do more, it’s much easier to change its appearance.

    Appearance follows performance, IOW.

    Plus, it’s the most motivating way to work out. When you can feel your strength, coordination, and athleticism improving from week to week and month to month, you have more interest in training.

  • Lou,

    Like so many other things in life, in the end, it comes down to basics. Sure, you can blindly follow every new fad diet under the sun, and spend a fortune on every exercise machine touted by late night pitch men. Many people have done exactly that, and some have tasted success by doing so.

    The sad thing is that it is so much easier. Find a sport or physical activity or two that you enjoy and can cultivate a passion for. Take or (if you have to) make the time to engage in that activity at least 3 or four days each week. I prefer lifting weights and tennis, although not at the same time, I can’t backhand volley while holding a barbell.

    The beauty of physical activity is that, like art, there is something for everyone. No matter your physical capabilities, as long as you’re doing something that works for you, that’s what matters most.

    As for diet, it’s much the same. I like the DEC diet, Don’t Eat Crap. It works pretty darn well for me and most others who’ve tried it. Plenty of high quality protein, good fats, very little sugar, lots of vegetables and low glycemic index fruits, some nuts, and a bit of whole grains is all a diet really needs.

    Make sure you eat 5 or 6 times a day, and you’re halfway there. Take a good, hard look at that new bane of American dietetics, portion control, and you’ll have virtually any problem licked. No magic needed.

  • Beginning an exercise program early in life can ensure lifelong fitness and weight control. I started working out at 19 and have always managed to maintain a workout program.

    Now that I’m older, I can see that working out all these years, has been a benefit to aging.

  • Lou,

    You are on fire with your blogs lately. After reading each one and the comments I feel alive with passion about the topics.

    This topic in particular reminds me of a popular speech given at my graduation. I feel this sums up our situation very nicely.

    Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

    One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

    As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

    He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

    The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

    “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

    To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

    Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

    At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”

  • Lou, I think the FCC is monitoring this comment, so I will be sure to speak in code…So, by your last paragraph, are you saying you no longer believe there is support for hormonal surges and EPOC. I know recent studies have shown that EPOC is less than originally thought, but isn’t there still some value to it?

  • I think there’s value in everything, but there’s no single thing that will give an exerciser or dieter the results they want.

    I’ve heard from readers who’ve gotten fantastic results — I think I mention this in all my books — but you can’t look at outliers and say, “Oh, that’s the magic thing!”

    My favorite email came a few years ago from a guy who’d read my first book, Testosterone Advantage Plan, which my colleagues and I wrote in 2000 and 2001. The book said you can’t get the results you want if you continue drinking alcohol, especially beer. In NROL for Abs, which I wrote in late 2009 and early 2010, I was much more circumspect about alcohol and body fat. (Shout out to Alan Aragon, whose research I relied on.) But for that one guy, the advice to not drink beer was the one thing that made a spectacular difference. I forget the exact number, but the guy lost a ridiculous amount of fat just by not drinking beer every night.

    Same with EPOC. The notion that some workouts produce a dramatic afterburn effect but others don’t is tremendously appealing to me as a workout-book author. It also matches my personal experience. Steady-state endurance exercise has never done anything good for me. I might get a bit leaner for a week or two. After that, I just feel progressively worse — tired, battered, weak. But that doesn’t mean it feels bad for everyone.

    Moreover, it doesn’t mean that people who are really good at endurance exercise don’t get the same compounding benefits I feel I get from strength training. Their bodies are still burning bonus calories in the hours following a 10-mile run, just as my metabolism is running faster after 45 minutes of whatever fiendish gym workout I’ve gotten from Alwyn Cosgrove or Chad Waterbury. It takes energy to recover from a hard workout of any type. (And of course they’re burning a lot more energy during their workouts than I am.) The results look different, but they’re still results.

    The real trick is to get people to the point where they’re doing those hard workouts on a regular basis without grinding themselves down and burning out. Even if they haven’t figured out the dietary magic, they’re at least getting all they can out of the “calories out” part of the equation.

  • Wayne

    Thanks Lou, now I don’t feel so bad about the glass of wine I had last night. I hear you about the burnout part. I have been augmenting my hard/intense workouts with some easier days that will burn some calories, less than my hard ones, but still allow me the ability to recover. It’s worked well for me. But like you said, everybody responds a bit different. Thanks for your insights.


  • Chris

    Lou, nice little blog. It amazes me how many people come up to me and ask me what they should do to lose weight. I give the “3 legs of the stool” analogy: diet, cardio, and weights (emphasizing mainly the 1st and 3rd).

    But I get especially frustrated when they bring up supplements or “colon cleansing” into the picture. The problem is multi-angled. First, people want the “quick fix”, so they want a quick solution. This leads to the second angle, which is the supplement producers, who promise quick results (without validation). This leads to the third angle, where the supplement producers have enabled politicians to put in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which basically gives supplement makers free reign to say whatever they want, and if challenged, puts up hurdles which gives enough time for the makers to make whatever they want with whatever claims they want. It doesn’t help that we have celebrity fitness “gurus” (Jillian Michaels comes to mind) help in advertising these supplements.

    The best advice I think one can give is to be patient and disciplined, while sticking to the hard facts (good evidence-based facts). Furthermore, do what works for you, but you may have to go back to the drawing board every so often (and even encouraged). We did not become good at what we do because we watched reality TV shows while glancing at an open book. We spent time learning things that we wanted to do and in turn practiced them. There is no magic potion; it’s time to live in reality.