Exercise Myth: Why We Don't Lose Weight From Exercise Alone

Hey Heifers! Have you ever killed it at the gym or committed to a serious running program and, in a cruel twist of fate, not actually lost any weight?  We have been discussing this very thing in our Run, Heifer, Run Facebook Group Page recently.

Weeks pass, you’re gutting out an hour of cardio, and the scale reads the same number it read when you started. Or, worse, you’re putting in the time and energy for legit workouts and you actually weigh more?

You stand there, looking at the scale, and wonder: WTF?

You’re doing the stuff you’ve been told to do by your doctor, your friends and my most important friend: The Google. 

Move more to burn fat and torch calories.

People say it’s a basic math equation and a simple recipe for lowering our weight, our cholesterol and a whole bunch of other factors that our doctors hound us about: hypertension, diabetes, joint pain and more.  

So, we do what we’re told. We hit the gym, the pavement, or the cycling room and endure a long sweaty workout so that we can whittle our waists and keep our bodies in fighting shape.

The problem? Well, it turns out that some fitness experts are claiming that exercise may actually be hurting our weight loss goals instead of helping them!

Say what?

I know, Heifers, I know.  Put the protein bar down and listen.

It turns out that cardio makes us….well…hungry. (WHO KNEW?)

According to a 2009 Time magazine article, exercise can stimulate hunger and cause us to actually eat MORE than the calories we just burned. In fact, not only is exercise not helping us lose weight: it may in fact be hindering our efforts and making it actually harder to drop pounds.

I’ve seen it myself. There is a mental switch that flips when I finish a half-marathon or even just a seven-mile run through the mean streets of my Phoenix suburb. I feel pretty badass. I killed it. I logged the time and the miles, and I have all sorts of measurements to prove it. I ran SEVEN MILES, and when I get home, I feel pretty good about myself and my commitment to my health, fitness and keeping off the weight I lost way back when.

Then, at dinner later that night, still high from all those exercise endorphins, I decide the chips and salsa are totally justified because I ran SEVEN MILES. What could a few chips mean in the grand scheme of things? And I have to keep my body nourished and satisfied. Anyway, I’m famished and can’t wait for the entrée, which may in fact be a super healthy salad, dressing on the side. 

So, I dig in. I have a chip and then another. My hunger cues and hormones and all the rest of that fancy circuitry inside my body starts lighting up: bells and whistles. This is reward-central, and my body wants more. My brain says it’s just fine because of those SEVEN MILES.

You can all see where this is going. After a night of "calculated indulging," I wake up to a pound or two jump on the scale, which I tell myself is water weight and will drop off in no time.

But….if I keep it up, this kind of eating and the mentality behind it will ruin my weight loss goals and likely turn toward a downward spiral of shame.  That is NOT the same as a downward spiral of zucchini noodles, but I digress.  Those things  are gross. But whatevs. I'm not here to discuss zucchini spiral noodles today. Maybe that'll be my next blog post.  Anyway....

I beat myself up for not sticking to my diet, and I promise myself that I’ll run an extra few miles each day that week to compensate for the splurge.

And there, my heifer friends, is where the real problem comes in. Exercise is so often used as compensation for eating, when in reality, it takes a ton of sweat equity to equal a fairly small portion size of food. 

<Repeat after me: EXERCISE SHOULD NOT BE USED AS COMPENSATION OR PUNISHMENT FOR EATING EXTRA CALORIES.  Exercise should be fun! It's a way to keep your body healthy and your mind, too!>

In multiple studies by famous exercise researchers (people actually get paid to do this!), exercise has not been shown to significantly increase weight loss because it so often leads people to over-compensate with food.

In fact, in that Time article, the authors note, “Whether because exercise made them hungry or because they wanted to reward themselves (or both), most of the women who exercised ate more than they did before they started the experiment. Or they compensated in another way, by moving around a lot less than usual after they got home.”

Turns out the mental math we’re doing is kind of sketchy. In our minds, that run took a lot of time and covered a lot of dirt road, so we think it must have used up a ton of calories. Yeah. We’re wrong. Running seven miles does burn significant calories. On an average woman, we’ll burn about 105 calories per miles, which adds up to 735 calories over seven miles. Sounds pretty good, right?

Have you checked out how many calories are in a basket of chips and salsa from a Mexican restaurant? 

The basket of chips alone is 570 calories! I repeat:  570 calories, and that's a conservative estimate. If you add a side of guac (and who doesn’t), we’re now at about 770 calories.

We just ate more than we burned on a SEVEN MILE run.

That, my trusty HeiferHood, is how we don’t lose weight even though we’re exercising more and more.

Add to that the fact that we may move less during the day to compensate for all those miles we ran and the fact that our bodies are actually hungrier from all that exercise, and we’re in trouble.

So, that’s the bad news.  And like all good parents, I prefer to give the bad news first.

Ready for the good news?

Exercise, like running seven miles in the Arizona sunshine, makes our hearts and lungs stronger, increases bone density, reduces stress, reduces the risk of some types of cancer, decreases the risk of heart disease, may provide relief from anxiety and depression and helps us sleep better. On top of all of this, exercise has been shown to improve mental functioning. 

As a 40-something mom with four kids, I need all the cognitive hustle I can get.

All of these are some pretty awesome reasons to exercise, some seriously legit reasons to exercise. But weight loss, dropping pounds on the scale, torching calories….those may not be the best reasons to put in the time and energy required to commit to an exercise program.

Instead of finding this information depressing, I like to think of myself as just better informed. We now know that exercise has a ton of perks and benefits but that dropping weight likely won’t be one of them.

The key to dropping the weight is good sleep, a healthy diet and consistency in both, with a huge focus on that healthy diet part..... Losing weight is 80% what we're eating. 

Once we understand what exercise does (and doesn’t) do for us, we can plan accordingly and get the most out of our workouts without being disappointed when we don’t see results that may in fact be impossible to see.

Exercise alone isn’t going to whittle the waistline. After I understood what exercise did for me and the fact that it wasn’t a magic pill that would turn me into a Barbie doll, I took it for what it was: a way to help my body be overall healthier, stronger and fitter.

I don’t figure exercise into my eating choices anymore. I eat when I’m hungry, and I eat healthy food overall. I splurge sometimes but not because I ran an extra mile or am training for another half-marathon. I know those numbers don’t add up.

I keep my exercise at a level I can maintain reasonably comfortably and that doesn’t leave me famished and reaching for a Little Caesar's Large Pepperoni and Crazy Bread after a run. Because now I know…those 532,987,234 calories would make my five-mile run a total wash.