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.