“Do this one move to blast belly fat!”
“Build a beach body with these 6 exercises.”
“Get ripped, right now—a 4-week exercise plan!”
There’s a myth that is perpetuated constantly by the media and even by some medical professionals. Nearly everyone believes it. It’s the exercise myth. It goes something like this: “I need to lose weight. I’m going to start exercising. I’ll go to the gym every day after work/start running every evening /break out that old workout DVD.”
Exercise- It’s just about the first thing people start thinking about when they decide that they want to lose weight. And while there are 200+ good reasons to exercise, losing weight isn’t one of them. Sure, some people can and do lose weight by exercising more, but more often than not, if your sole means of weight loss is by hitting the gym, you’re more likely to gain weight than to lose it. There are a lot of reasons why, both physiological and psychological.
It starts with the belief that because you exercised so much, you definitely deserve an extra serving at dinner, and why not dessert, too? The truth is, even an hour of exercise wouldn’t cover the extra calories consumed at dinner, let alone dessert. We tend to vastly overestimate the calories we burn during exercise, but underestimate the calories in the foods we consume. When we rely on technology to do the counting for us (think of the calories display on any treadmill, elliptical, or stairmaster), the technology does the same—overestimates calories burned through exercise and underestimates the calories in food.
Another reason people tend to gain weight when they start to exercise is usually because they follow the advice “eat less, exercise more” which stimulates the body’s appetite. If you suddenly increase the amount of exercise you do and reduce your energy intake, your body is going to think something is going wrong and you’ll start to feel hungrier all the time. This is a normal body response, but it sure doesn’t help you lose weight.
Something else to consider is you might be having trouble people often compensate for exercising by being more sedentary the rest of the day. Where you might normally be lightly active in the evening, after an exercise session you might feel that you deserve to sit on the couch and watch Netflix instead.
If exercise isn’t going to help with weight loss, what’s a person to do?
Firstly, recognize that a lot of the time the changes in your behaviour are more about your perception of exercise than it is about the exercise itself. In studies where people are told they are exercising, those same people will consume more calories when offered food after the exercise than another group who did the same amount of physical activity but who weren’t told it was “exercise.” This tells us that our perception of how much we enjoy physical activity will change how much we feel we deserve food after the fact. Find some things that you like to do, and do more of those activities because when you have fun you don’t feel the need to reward yourself with food—having fun is reward enough.
Second, make changes to your diet your first priority. Make small changes first, and make sure they’re ingrained habits before you move on to your next new habit. Small consistent new habits will help you to lose more weight than making sweeping changes that you’re only able to sustain for a couple of weeks or months. If you’re not sure where to start, seek out advice from a Registered Dietitian.
Lastly, don’t forget that exercise is still good for you. There are many reasons to be physically active, and while being active won’t necessarily speed weight loss efforts, it can definitely help maintain weight and build the body shape that you want.
Remember: Your body is built in the kitchen and sculpted in the gym!