The Science is in: Exercise is not that Effective for Weight Loss
By: Mercedes Diaz, MMP, CPT
Over the last few decades, researchers have been trying to figure out exactly what is causing the obesity epidemic. At first, the proof was clear, a diet too high in refined carbs and trans fats had snuck its way into our modern lives, and people were moving less because of desk jobs and television. Then, they found that obesity rates continued to rise and with it came tremendous health consequences, so the advice was given to move more and eat less-- following the basic law of thermodynamics. Can you believe it? That didn’t work either, and up went the obesity rates even higher.
After years of telling people to move more (and eat less--especially the refined carbs and high-fat combination foods) in 2008, a study came out where they realized they might have been wrong about the “move more” part, and it shocked the fitness world-- well some of us, who were paying attention to the science. The rest of us had no idea… even I didn’t find out about this until 2013-- years after these studies were conducted:
More studies continued to show the same results, little to no weight loss, fat loss, or muscle gain with exercise alone, and instead just frustrated and hungry people who were not losing and sometimes even gaining weight, despite their efforts.
I don’t know about you, but when I first started working out, I immediately lost weight, (granted I was 18 years old), and for years, I always kind of assumed that even if my diet wasn't perfect, as long as I kept working out, I would be fine. And for a long time, I really was fine. If the scale was moving up a bit, I just worked out harder or longer.
In 2012, I completed a 3-month intensive personal training certification, where I hoped to show other people how to lose weight and keep it off, as I had. But my stint with training people was cut short when none of my clients saw results, and despite their efforts, they seemed to be just paying money to have me motivate them and make them feel better about their failures.
I was stumped. I lost motivation to train people fairly quickly. See, I am a results kind of person, and when I don’t see cold hard facts or data, I immediately start looking elsewhere. And thank goodness I did, because like clockwork, I hit 30, and my workouts weren’t keeping my weight off either.
Finally, exercise had stopped working for me, too, and it forced me to look deeper into this phenomenon.
I had started my business, and life had gotten busy. I was still training intensely 6 days per week (I signed up for Crossfit), but my weight was going up, and I was constantly tired, hungry, and sore. By this point in my life, I was doing about 6-7 hours of sports massages per day, sometimes 7 days per week. Lifting heavy weights and working long, intense hours was not new to me, though, I had spent years in the Army being a super soldier, and I had worked hard and trained hard. But now, something was off, and the more I doubled down on training, the more it seemed I couldn’t really control my weight anymore. So, I decided it was time to quit the crazy workouts against my better judgment, and I did. No more running for 2 hours a day or deadlifting double my weight, nope, all of it was done. It was time to take a break from all of this madness.
That’s when I realized that the research had been out for a long time. Still, somehow the information hadn’t trickled down, even to a certified personal trainer, sports & medical massage therapist, and fitness enthusiast like myself.
Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but I don’t think it was just me either because I still had many clients punishing themselves at the gym to lose weight.
With all of this said, and with all that I know, my advice to people now is not “stop working out” because there are so many benefits to having a regular exercise routine, including but not limited to:
Strengthening the heart and lungs
Reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome which includes symptoms like: hypertension, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
Weight-bearing activities, such as running, strengthen bones and muscles.
Reduces the risk of certain cancers, including breast and colon cancer.
Elevates mood, and it keeps thinking and judgment skills sharp.
It helps you live longer. People who work out for about seven hours a week have a 40 percent lower risk of dying early compared with those who exercise less than 30 minutes a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Instead, what I try to clarify to people is that your diet will be the most important part of your weight loss efforts, and exercise will be secondary. The “more is better” attitude towards exercise is not the way to go. Instead, I encourage people to find their “minimum dose” of exercise, where they are still getting the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle while minimizing inflammation, stress-induced weight gain, overeating, and injury. Focus on eating REAL FOOD, and more than anything, LIVE YOUR LIFE to the fullest.
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