A friend’s uncle has been struggling with his weight: “I’ve tried literally everything to lose it,” he said, “short of diet and exercise.”
At the risk of over-explaining and ruining the joke, it’s funny because everybody knows that diet and exercise are how you lose weight. The problem is, what everybody knows is wrong – or, at least, half wrong.
It turns out that exercise is a lousy way to lose weight. Diet is the MUCH bigger factor. Some say the formula is 90% what you eat, 10% what you do.
The punchline really should be, “I’ve tried literally everything to lose it, short of diet.” (Somehow, though, this doesn’t seem as funny). I won’t hold my breath for the joke to change, but it’s worth correcting the idea, because it’s making people focus on the wrong stuff!
You can do the math on calories if you want (a 30 minute hard run for a 180 pound person burns about 500 calories), but the research shows that the TYPE of calories you consume is actually much more important. Sugary drinks, for instance (even so-called “healthy” drinks like fruit juice or that delicious Arizona Iced Tea) are absorbed so quickly that your body has no choice but to store the sugar as fat. Insulin spikes, insulin resistance goes up, your risk of metabolic syndrome increases, and to add insult to injury, you still don’t feel full!
There’s lots of scientific data here, but stories are more compelling, and you don’t have to look very far to find them. Someone in a workshop last year recounted how he had spent 20 years going to the gym for 2 or 3 hours, at least 4 times a week, but he continually struggled with his weight. But then he made a big change in his approach, and he was happy to say he had lost over 40 pounds in 3 months! What’s his secret? He cut out sugar.
Perversely, being inactive may contribute to gaining weight, but being MORE active doesn’t necessarily help you lose it.
Personally, I’m one of the lucky few that has never struggled with my weight, but I have absolutely struggled to stay active amidst a busy life. From youth through university, I played sports, went to the gym, walked, rode my bike, and generally felt good. BUT, after I graduated, my physical activity slipped away – especially the cardio parts. I’ve made tons of excuses. Too busy, not close enough to the gym, no squash partner, bad weather. Here’s what I know: I feel better when I move.
Exercise regimes are hard to stick to, and when our goal is simply to lose a few extra pounds, we risk giving up a perfectly great habit when the scale doesn’t change. I’ve only recently figured out that running with a friend is the best way for me to stick with it – the social pressure helps me get out the door!
We all need to find the motivators that will help us stay active, because exercise has some really well-defined benefits that AREN’T related to losing weight. It turns out we feel really good when we use our bodies! Conversely, sitting on our butts all day is a shortcut to disease and misery.
Regular exercise can help with depression, anxiety, stress, ADHD, and more. It’s been shown that PTSD symptoms can be helped with exercise, especially when combined with a mindfulness component. For me, a particularly strong motivator is that exercise hugely reduces your chances of getting dementia in later life. In fact, there is a whole list of other non-weight-related benefits:
- Stronger Immune System: You’ll get sick less often.
- Clearer Thinking: Endorphins that make you feel good also help your brain function.
- Lower Stress: Exercise breaks the cycle of muscular tension and can provide a mental distraction
- Better Sleep: Firing up the body earlier in the day will help encourage healthy sleep patterns.
- More Energy: Even as you use your energy for exercise, your body will make more energy available for you to use! You’ll feel great.
- Increased Resilience: In addition to the physiological immune effects, regular exercise routines promote self-confidence, self-worth, and healthy habits
So, stop exercising to lose weight, and start exercising for all the other awesome reasons. You’ll be happier, healthier, and enjoy a longer life because of it!