Mythbuster Monday: If you exercise enough, you’ll lose weight

Short answer: Nope.

Hold the phone. This is basic nutrition science! If you want to lose weight, it’s simple: eat fewer calories than you burn. Eat less, move more. Calories in, calories out.

Except that plenty of recent studies – and even some older ones – show that people are actually exercising but not losing weight.

Most of us were raised on dietary and health dogma that’s been proven ineffective over and over again at this point: low-fat diets, hour-long cardio sessions, to name a couple.

How could you be both exercising and gaining weight?

Here are some reasons why you might be exercising but not losing weight.

You’re exercising inefficiently.

Not all exercise is created equal – but you knew that. Turns out, though, that the kind of exercise we’ve been raised on isn’t the best route to lasting health or weight loss.  

Perhaps the most important thing in the exercise equation? Mix up your routine. Do a variety of exercises that require different intensity levels throughout the week: instead of jogging for an hour on weekdays, try a couple days of jogging, a couple days of strength training, and some yoga or slow walking as often as possible.

Then there’s the question of cardio vs. strength training in regards to weight loss. Compared down to the minute, cardio burns more calories than strength training – and helps you lose more weight more quickly. But with steady-state cardio, you’ll lose a combination of fat and muscle. Strength training burns less calories during your workout, but helps you build muscle – and muscle burns three times more calories than fat in your body.

If you’re exercising religiously but not losing weight, try this:

  • Do strength/resistance training 2-3 times per week. Have a trainer show you how to lift
  • Try to incorporate slow, leisurely movement every day – like walking around the neighborhood, taking an easy bike ride to your favorite coffee shop, or going to a (restorative) yoga class. Regular low-intensity exercise is one of the keys to keeping the weight off!
  • Once a week, practice sprinting (whether that’s running, rowing, or cycling) – high-intensity interval training is one of the most effective ways to increase fat loss. Just make sure you’re being safe! Not sure how to sprint? Primal movement leader Mark Sisson provides 8 different ways to incorporate sprints into your routine.
  • Use steady-state cardio (jogging, biking, etc.) to curb stress and boost your activity level – not as your primary weight loss tool.

You treat yourself after your workouts.

You’re right, you do deserve some kudos after a good workout – but most people unwittingly consume more calories after a workout than the exercise actually burns. And if you “replace” the 350 calories you burned on the elliptical with a sugary, processed snack, you’re really not doing anything to help yourself out.

How much is enough to refuel? Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, told Fitness Magazine that she’d advise clients to eat back no more than half the calories burned off during a workout.

Also, keep in mind that athlete-focused snacks and products like protein bars and shakes, electrolyte-rich water, and other sports drinks are created for people who are very active – people who are engaging in intense, sugar-burning workouts. Try to keep your activity level in mind when choosing your refueling foods.

You don’t eat enough to fuel your workouts.

On the other hand, not eating enough for your activity level can cause your body to think it is being starved. If you’re eating a calorie-restricted diet but working out fairly intensely, pay attention to how you feel. If you’re tired, have trouble recovering from workouts or maintaining your strength, or are more prone to colds and sniffles, you might be overtraining without adequately refueling.

Under-eating can cause serious thyroid problems, and they won’t go unnoticed: your thyroid is one of the most significant contributors to weight gain.

You’re missing other pieces of the weight loss puzzle.

Getting to – and staying at – a healthy weight takes more than exercise and eating well. Your mental and emotional health can be as significant to your weight loss journey as your food and movement.

Are you getting enough sleep? Research shows that getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night really does affect your BMI – and some experts say that sleep is the most important thing to get right for weight loss and weight maintenance.

Are you stressed? Most people in our workforce and education systems today would probably describe themselves as a bit stressed. And for most of us, that stress is low-grade and ever-present: constantly checking email, gritting our teeth through rush hour traffic, and worrying about the yoga class we might or might not make early in the morning are all stressful events. Stress increases cortisol production, and constantly raised cortisol levels contribute to fat gain (especially abdominal fat gain). 

Do you really need to lose weight? If you’ve been losing weight for a while and are plateauing, you may well be at a weight your body is perfectly content with – and one it will fight you for. Being at a healthy body weight means that you’re able to reproduce, fight off infection, and carry out normal functions – all of which are good things! So if you’re aiming for single-digit body fat percentages or visible abs, know that you’ll probably have to push your body a little beyond its healthy comfort zone to get them.

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