Exercise or Sabotage?
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Exercise or Sabotage?Are you pushing too hard?
I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that you don’t have a lot of extra time to spend at the gym. My clients from all different walks of life tend to have at least one thing in common: they’re extremely busy! Luckily for all of us, being strapped to a piece of exercise equipment until you’re at death’s door is not essential to reaching your goal weight. In fact, it’s highly likely that this “exhaustion” component of the current starvation-plus-exhaustion method of weight loss (aka The Biggest Loser contestant) is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic facing our nation.
Before going any further, let me explicitly state that I love to exercise. I love strength training at the gym and doing my morning cardio on a VersaClimber machine. Consequently, I experience many of the benefits of a balanced exercise program: a higher metabolism, better muscle tone, decreased inflammation, improved immune function, better cognitive function, stress relief, and an overall more pleasant mood. The keyword in the prior sentence is balanced.
All exercise causes physical stress on the body, and begins a catabolic chain of events during and immediately following your workout. Even the most ideal exercise is essentially breaking down your body, so I believe a balanced exercise program is about 49 percent work and 51 percent rest. The processes by which you achieve the benefits I listed above don’t actually occur while you are in boot-camp class . . . they occur while you are eating nutritious meals and getting a solid eight hours of restful sleep in the days following your catabolic workout.
When you understand that truth, the prescription for weight loss based on The Biggest Loser seems absurd. Sure, it makes for great TV, but these contestants are only losing so much weight at such a pace because they’re literally breaking their bodies down. Not to mention that the portrayal of effective weight loss given to America via The Biggest Loser makes the journey seem undesirable at best and impossible at worst. What normal Americans are willing to implement the strategies they use on that show, let alone capable of doing so?!
More Activity, Less Exercise
A very strange contradiction in our country exists: simultaneously, we are working out too hard while also not being active enough. We find ourselves in this predicament because of confusing messages regarding exercise and weight loss, and also because our day-to-day lives have been almost completely stripped of activity between sedentary jobs and a car-oriented lifestyle.
There are two scenarios I have noticed time and again:
Despite being terribly busy, Susan manages to squeeze in an hour run at least five times a week, even if she has to drag her tired body out of bed two hours early. The rest of the day she has very little energy to devote to her husband, kids, dog, or hobbies. Somehow, despite her best efforts, she can’t seem to lose weight.
Karen is outrageously busy and really hates to exercise, causing her to completely give up on trying to run or make it to the gym. Because it feels both impossible and undesirable to squeeze five to seven hours of exercise into each week of her life, she believes that she simply cannot lose the weight and stops trying. This negative belief has become self-fulfilling.
Most experienced dieters fall into, or at least can relate to, one of the scenarios above. Conventional Wisdom, Inc., would tell both women to exercise more, and at a higher intensity. Why would I tell you that more exercise is not the answer? Consider the following:
In a Time magazine article titled “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin,” writer John Cloud discusses a study done by researchers at Peninsula Medical School. The researchers monitored three groups of schoolchildren: the first group got over 9 hours of physical education weekly, the second group got 2.4 hours, and the last group got only 1.7 hours. They discovered that when kids spent more time in P.E., they were also less active afterward. The kids in all three groups ended up with the same average activity levels by the end of each day. The researchers suggested that this was because the kids who had less P.E. were more inclined to play and be active throughout the day because they simply had more energy.
So trying to pack in more exercise at the gym doesn’t help you lose weight, because it drains your body of energy. Then your body tries to conserve energy the rest of the day to compensate. But please don’t think I’m trying to tell you that all exercise is bad—context, once again, is desperately needed to understand the situation.
It’s not about how much activity, but rather the kind of activity.
Once again, quality trumps quantity. I’d like to make the point that excessively stressful exercise will do more to sabotage your weight loss than it will to accelerate it. To that end, the Time article I just referenced also highlights a study published in the journal of the Public Library of Science, PLoS ONE, which noted that exercising for long periods of time at high intensities created a situation referred to as compensation.
Compensation is the phenomenon in which exhaustive exercise leads to an increase in appetite, especially for those sugary and starchy foods that cause weight gain. These cravings often erase any gains that would have been made from the increased activity.
The phenomenon is quite relatable: you work out at the gym but consume more food because of (1) increased appetite; (2) stronger cravings, especially for sugar and starch; (3) the desire to reward yourself for your efforts; or (4) any combination of the above! The result is that you end up back at zero—or often worse off than before if you’re one of the many Americans who has yet to discover the role hidden sugar and insulin plays in your dieting misery.
In order to avoid the trap of compensation and to ensure that you’re healing your body as opposed to breaking it down, my recommendation is to shift your focus from exercise to activity. That’s just another way to say, “Play more and sweat less!”
Examples of activities that can aid you in your weight loss include the following:
- Playing with your kids or grandkids
- Walking the neighborhood in the afternoon or after dinner
- Walking or playing with your dog
These types of low-impact activities that can be performed for extended periods of time (30 to 90 minutes) are the ideal way for most individuals to increase the amount of energy they put back into the universe. They’re enjoyable; they’re practical; and, most important, they increase energy without overly stressing the body. They also give an option to people who, whether by choice or by circumstance, need to improve their health dramatically without exercise.