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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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Exercising to lose weight? Think again.

June 20, 2011 32 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

Exercise bikesphoto © 2010 Keith Ramsey | more info (via: Wylio)

I just got back from a sweaty four-mile run, and as I sit here typing I’m noticing the familiar pangs of post-exercise hunger creeping in. My body is signaling to me that it has expended my energy stores – it wants fuel to keep operating. I know that if I don’t feed myself soon (usually within 30 minutes after intense physical activity), I’m going to start getting light-headed, irritable, and unable to focus.

This post-workout hunger – and the necessary response of eating – are what experts consider the reason that exercise doesn’t usually lead to weight loss. Yes, you read that right. Exercise and weight loss do not go hand in hand.

Study after study suggests that, contrary to popular belief, spending more time on the elliptical does not lead to a smaller figure. That might be frustrating news to the 45 million Americans who belong to fitness clubs, a number that has increased since 2001 according to the IHRSA.

While not everyone joins a gym to get skinny, it is the primary reason cited for exercise. Sometimes it’s snuck into a litany of other reasons – to keep up with the kids, get my blood pressure under control, to make my partner happy – but people will usually still identify weight loss or weight control as a reason for hitting the treadmill.

Perhaps disappointing to these individuals, doctors and researchers have fairly solid evidence that exercise won’t result in a slimmer waistline. In a 2009 Time magazine article, Eric Ravussin, prominent exercise researchers and faculty at Louisiana State University stated unequivocally,  ”In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless.”

Ravussin and others in the field explain that exercise tends to increase and stimulate our hunger, resulting in a reversal of the energy expenditure we just created once we eat. And we need to eat! Experts agree that it’s important to nourish your body after a workout to replace glycogen in your body.  It’s also important in order to avoid excessive hunger that could lead to a binge later.

So why I am telling you how ineffective exercise is for weight loss? Because there are so many reasons to exercise that have nothing do with our size – reasons that got so lost in the bombardment of messages of how our cardio routine can blast belly fat.

In a 2009 study, participants who considered themselves sedentary and had body mass indices in the obese range, took up supervised exercise for twelve weeks. What researchers found was that weight did not significantly change. Before you call the experiment a wash though, consider that most of the individuals did increase their aerobic capacity, decreased their blood pressure and resting heart rates, and improved their mood.

Other benefits of exercise include building healthy bones and joints, reducing the risk of diabetes and cancer, and improving circulation. Even more fascinating, exercise, especially mindful exercise, has been shown to improve mood, increase learning ability, and improve body image. And that’s all without the scale changing a bit.

Once we can let go of the association between exercise and weight loss, we can start to focus on doing things that we actually enjoy. Rather than a punishment to whip our bodies into a certain size or shape, we can approach exercise as a way of honoring our bodies as another expression of our selves. This means taking rest as seriously as movement, and finding activities we truly love– even if the calorie expenditure is low.

 

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32 Comments

  1. abbey
    4 years ago

    Hi, great post. Im relatively slim and people often say things like ‘you dont need to go to the gym’, but as you have pointed out there are so many benefits of exercise other than to lose weight. For me it is just the feel good factor! Although it may not be so great for weight loss as it increases appetite quite often, it can help build muscle which can mean that more calories are burned over the day maybe.

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      That is true, Abbey, that exercising regularly can increase our metabolism overall and build muscles that work more efficiently, depending on the nature of the exercise and other factors. If our bodies are burning more, though, we will experience more hunger as well. I’m glad that you can enjoy exercise for the feel good factor. So important!

      Reply

  2. Kate
    4 years ago

    This has been one of the biggest hurdles for me in learning to reframe my mindset after an eating disorder. When I exercise, my body needs MORE fuel, to make up for the energy I’m expending. And learning to exercise mindfully, when my body asks me for it, and not as a way to “make up for” calories consumed, has made exercise a joyful activity for me instead of a punishment.
    Kate recently posted..Does This Uterus Make Me Look Fat

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  3. Meaghan
    4 years ago

    I second what Kate said! Since I stopped exercising for weight loss/control, I actually started to ENJOY exercise more! And now I listen to my body instead of forcing myself on the treadmill and the weights everyday, even if I were in pain. As a result, I started reaping the benefits of exercise, because it’s not a punishment for me anymore.

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      That’s awesome!

      Reply

  4. Katie @ Health for the Whole Self
    4 years ago

    I am going to piggy back on what the other commenters have said; I too have found that upon shifting my exercise mindset away from weight loss and towards the other benefits, I enjoy exercise a whole lot more than I used to!

    Reply

  5. McKella
    4 years ago

    Unfortunately, those who suffer from eating disorders might exercise and not obey their increased appetite. Been there, done that. During the restricting phase of my eating disorder, exercise did speed my weight loss because I didn’t allow myself to eat more, which of course caused me to feel weak and dizzy all the time and lose my period.
    Now I walk and do yoga because I love it and it does help me to love my body and stay healthy.
    McKella recently posted..Why I Decided to Weigh Again

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      I love doing yoga as well! And walking provides many of the same benefits of more intense activity, so it’s a great way to be more gentle on your body while reaping benefits of exercise.

      Reply

  6. Lael
    4 years ago

    I finally figured this out myself, about a year ago.
    I’d been trying to lose the “baby weight” for 17 years and just kept getting fatter. Oh the irony.
    ANYway, I still exercise, I just do it to stave off soreness and help my heart and all that.
    Lael recently posted..And the Winners Are

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      That can be frustrating to learn after all that time. I’m glad to hear that you are still moving but for different reasons!

      Reply

  7. JourneyBeyondSurvival
    4 years ago

    This makes me feel so much better about my own thoughts. I realized that the exercise was really just a mood booster.
    JourneyBeyondSurvival recently posted..It’s a Plan

    Reply

  8. KCLAnderson (Karen)
    4 years ago

    Great post!! Here’s what I’ve come to learn about exercise: it’s good for my body/mind/spirit. No, it may not make me lose weight, but it shapes my body in a way that is pleasing to me :-) That is more important than the number on the scale any day!
    KCLAnderson (Karen) recently posted..I Remember Dad

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul
      4 years ago

      Most definitely!

      Reply

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  9. Taron
    4 years ago

    Being someone who wasn’t able to exercise for many years due to strict orders from my physio (as it only would have hindered my recovery from poor posture and related RSI neck pain), I can attest how powerful exercise can be as a mood booster and a way to just feel well generally. Sometimes you really don’t miss something until it’s gone! And even though I am sure that exercise doesn’t helps me to lose weight (although I wouldn’t know as I never weigh myself!), it really helps me to feel better about my body. It may be because I feel more toned or just that I realize it’s a working body that can finally move properly, which makes me really happy!
    Taron recently posted..Bravery- A Little Every Day

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  10. Lisa
    4 years ago

    It’s definitely a SCIENCE to exercise in order to lose weight. I do both: I count my calories and pay attention to portion sizes as well as exercise. I exercise because I love it. I love that my body can do things it could never do before. I love the challenge and the endorphins.

    Eating right before and after exercise is a hard thing. I try to keep the calories in check. For example I’ll have a small pre-workout snack, workout and then eat dinner right afterward. That works well for me.

    Certain activities cause different kinds of hunger for me. Swimming causes insatiable hunger. Running does too. Other things not as much!

    Reply

  11. Eating as a Path to Yoga
    4 years ago

    Joyful Movement is essential for a healthy soul. Unhooking weight loss from exercise is KEY!

    Reply

  12. M
    3 years ago

    This has always been amusing to me. There is no way I could lose weight from physical activity. At various points in my life, i’ve done a fair amount of strenuous physical activity – downhill ski team, cross country team, hiking, and so on. During these periods I developed the most insatiable appetite which could rival that of a 15 year old boy. I would eat a huge meal, and have a nagging feeling of hunger only an hour later (pretty annoying when i was trying to do something else). To my parents’ amusement, they’d buy me a box of italian pastries and id polish it off in one day! I wasn’t eating out of stress or boredom, I really felt that hungry. I think it’s pretty interesting how badly our bodies want balance and how smart our bodies are in achieving balance. My body certainly did not appreciate an energy deficit of any kind, and presumably that’s why I developed such a huge appetite. I generally think paying attention to your cravings is a good idea – if you’ve been incessantly craving fruit, a piece of cake, a giant salmon steak – there is probably a reason for it.

    Reply

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    3 years ago

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  14. Katie
    3 years ago

    I think you’re last paragraph is particularly beautiful. I spent so long exercising because I thought I needed it for weight management, but stopped, about a year and a half ago, as part of a larger transformation around food and body image.

    And you know what? I didn’t gain weight.

    But, even more importantly, I began to notice the ways in which moving enriched my life. When I wasn’t doing intense activity that I “forced” myself to do, I found myself seeking out opportunities to walk and do errands, or go swing dancing. Now, 1.5 years later, I find that I have a fairly regular yoga practice – but I do it because it brings me joy and calmness, not because I think it will make my figure perfect.
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