Sally Engelhart | Are you working out for nothing?
Scientifically Blonde | A reader asks why exercise isn't helping her lose weight
February 22, 2012, 9:37 pm·
Q: I’ve really been kicking my ass at the gym since the beginning of the semester. Why aren’t I losing any weight? — Gym Fanatic*
A: Well, Gym Fanatic, I want to give you an honest answer backed by scientific studies, but I’m afraid that I’ll just be wasting my time. You won’t like what I have to say and you probably won’t believe me.
Exercise doesn’t make you lose weight.
I know, it sucks. With spring break next week, I’m sure you know a lot of people who have been hitting the gym everyday (twice a day?) trying to drop pounds in time for their swimsuit destination. The truth is, they’re wasting your time.
In an interview with Time magazine, Eric Ravussin — prominent exercise researcher and chair in diabetes and metabolism at Louisiana State University — said, “in general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless.”
Some experts even suggest that exercise might make losing weight harder because it stimulates our appetite.
Exercising is commonly believed to burn calories, creating a calorie deficit that will make us lose weight. This suggests that exercising will lead to weight loss. But this isn’t what we see in scientific studies.
Timothy Church from the University of Louisiana put hundreds of overweight women on exercise regimes for half a year (much longer than your four week spring break power plan) and assigned each of them varying amounts of exercise. The women were told not to change their diet. After six months, there was no significant difference in weight loss between any of the groups, some women in every group even gained over 10 pounds of weight.
Another study by Danish researches trained normal people to run a marathon over 18 months. After the intense training period, the men had lost an average of 5 pounds and the women saw no changes to their body composition.
Why doesn’t physical activity lead to weight loss? It could be because we unknowingly eat more or engage in less movement after our work out. Or maybe, exercise messes with our metabolism. In all honesty, it’s probably a combination of factors.
Even if you can somehow resist the temptation to share a plate of nachos or opt for beer in place of your usual vodka soda on days you’ve hit the gym, Chanelle Bishop-Gilyard from Penn’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders says you would need 90 minutes of daily exercise to maintain weight once you’ve lost it. This is a tall order for students with midterms, homework, extracurriculars and social lives.
There’s also some reason to believe that if you manage this, exercise still might not be helping you lose weight.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people who diet and exercise only lose weight because of their diet. Exercise, contrary to what is usually believed, doesn’t really help.
But how do you explain stories of people who claim to have dropped weight with exercise? Well one thought is that when people start exercising, they feel healthier over all and are more likely to make small dietary changes without really thinking about it. Water instead of Coke. A salad instead of fries. Passing on that second cupcake.
I’m not telling you to quit the gym. “[Exercise] is still important for everyone because of the health benefits … like reducing cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” Bishop-Gilyard said.
That said, physical activity is not key to weight loss.
So why are we finding it so hard to accept this? Why am I still going to the gym as often as I can, with spring break lingering in the back of my head?
The link between exercise and weight loss has been engrained into our minds since childhood. Experts on weight management are still recommending diet and exercise in their programs.
While I do think that exercising for overall health is important, the message that it doesn’t lead to weight loss isn’t getting out there.
Maybe if everyone knew that physical activity wasn’t a big contributor to weight loss, exercisers wouldn’t be so quick to grab that second cookie and would have more success losing weight.
So Gym Fanatic, the evidence says that exercise is not going to make you skinny for the beach. But is that going to stop you from going to the gym today?
*Name has been omitted