Why Weight Watchers’ New Message About Fitness Is So Smart

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Woman using the Weight Watchers app. Photo: Matthew J. Lee/Getty Images

You'll recall that in October, chai-tea mogul and renowned dieter Oprah blessed diet company Weight Watchers with the gift of herself. This week, the company introduced a new-and-improved plan that the O has been following since August, as well as a revamp of its beloved food-points system. Weight Watchers says the program, Beyond the Scale, is more of a "holistic" plan than a diet. Encouragingly, fitness is emphasized in its own right, not simply as a vehicle to earn more food. That's a concept worth digesting.

Weight Watchers’ chief scientific officer told Time that exercise wasn't a core part of the plan before, but now members will have an activity goal (FitPoints) in addition to their intake goal (the new SmartPoints, which you can learn about on the company's site). And this is key: The program no longer automatically turns exercise points into more food points. People can change the setting if they want, but the company highlights this as a philosophy change and says most people can (and should) leave it as is.

As Weight Watchers explains on its FAQ pages, "Exercise doesn't cancel out food choices, so moving shouldn't be an excuse to eat more." (Though people who do several high-intensity workouts per week might want to swap some of their FitPoints for food.) You can lose weight on the program even if you don't work out, they say, but it's great for your health if you eat better and get moving. Why, that sounds like making lifestyle changes that work in the long run, instead of following an obsessive, calories-in-calories-out diet plan!

As a nation, we seem to rely on exercise to help us slim down a lot more than we should. That could partly be because we view working out as the cruel tax we have to pay so we can eat that burger we really want. Research says this idea is unhealthy in more ways than one: A study published last year found that people who were told that a 1.4-mile walk was exercise ate more dessert and snacks than people who believed it was a scenic stroll. The authors wrote: "Engaging in a physical activity seems to trigger the search for reward when individuals perceive it as exercise but not when they perceive it as fun."

While lifestyle changes can seem daunting (I have to eat healthier ... forever?), with Oprah onboard, hopefully she can use her cosmic powers to hypnotize us all in the pursuit of lasting wellness.