Why Exercise Doesn’t Always Lead to Weight Loss
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Exercise more and lose weight: So many of us resolve to do both those things in the new year. Every year. But do they actually go hand in hand? And why does it sometimes feel like we actually gain weight when we increase the amount of exercise we get, and lose weight when we moon around the house like a lump? (I know, it’s cold outside, but still…).
That question was recently put to the Well bloggers at the New York Times, who confirmed that studies show that our hunch is correct: We don’t always lose – and sometimes gain – weight when we exercise more. That’s mostly because exercise makes us hungrier and so we eat more – off-setting the calories we’ve burned.
What’s a health-minded person to do? We asked nutrition coach, consultant and yoga teacher Alexandra Caspero MA, RD, CLT, RYT of Delish Knowledge, and the author of the book Fresh Italian Cooking for the New Generation, for her perspective. She works to help clients find their “happy weight.” Here’s what she had to say:
Why do we sometimes gain weight when we start exercising? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? And does that mean we should not exercise if we want to lose weight?
Weight loss is just one of the many benefits to exercise, so I still encourage movement, even if weight gain is a side effect. It’s beneficial for cardiovascular, mental and skeletal health, among other things. And, this isn’t true across the board.
The more important thing to focus on is that exercise alone doesn’t equal weight loss; the diet still counts. I break it down to 80/20: Exercise is 20 percent of the equation; diet is 80 percent.
Spending 30 minutes on the treadmill likely burns 300-400 calories for the average person, which can easily be negated by an extra serving of pasta. Additionally, exercise may increase appetite and many of my clients think exercising gives them a reason to “eat more,” which isn’t always the case.
Are some forms of exercise better than others when it comes to weight loss or maintenance?
Weight-bearing exercises are going to increase muscle mass, which in turn increases our basal metabolic rate. In layman’s terms, this means that the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn per day, regardless of activity. Over time, this can be beneficial for weight maintenance, especially since we lose some protein/muscle stores when we lose weight.
There’s also research that shows that high-intensity interval training provides a higher caloric post-burn than other forms of exercise. But I like to focus on what you will actually do. If you dread going to boot camp, it’s not the best exercise for you, no matter the weight-loss benefits. If you love walking and will actually do it daily, that’s a much better predictor for weight maintenance and, possibly, loss.
What are the most important things for people to be aware of when it comes to weight loss and exercise — and maintaining what you call our “happy weight”?
I like to frame exercise as “mindful movement,” using it as “me-time,” as a mental and physical break from the day. What movement do you enjoy doing most? Just like I prefer to switch the focus from the scale to a feeling (for happy weight), the same is true for exercise. Ignore the calorie burns on machines (they’re likely off anyways) and focus on what makes you feel best.
Are there specific tips you have for overcoming exercise-induced weight gain – especially when it comes to eating?
Notice if you’re new exercise routine is making you feel like you have permission to eat more than you normally do. I see this all the time with clients — using exercise as an excuse to have an extra cookie, ice cream, etc. While I’m not saying you can’t enjoy those things, that’s not the purpose behind an exercise routine.
Again, exercise is essential for overall health and longevity; weight loss should just be an added, possible benefit. If you’re noticing that you’re hungrier than usual, use this time to fill your plate with healthy proteins and antioxidant-rich, nutrient-dense foods like lentils, fruits and vegetables.
In other words, you may want to include “eat healthy” on your list of resolutions, too.
Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. A regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, she has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast and Wine Spectator, among others, as well as for Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer.