“Perfect your ideal eating and workout plan to shed weight!”
“For your ideal body, eat less, move more!”
“Develop your diet and exercise routine for the physique you’ve always wanted!”
In terms of weight loss, most of us have come to equate sensible eating habits and exercise as a means of shedding excess body fat, and it’s no wonder as we’re constantly bombarded with slogans and motivational memes touting the fat-blasting benefits of healthy eating when paired with working out. In fact, the two are so intermingled in the public consciousness that most people tend to think of them as two complementary concepts as a means of accomplishing the same goal - your ideal weight.
But here’s the thing: They’re not.
I know, I know! It’s Earth-shattering news, but it’s largely true. Limiting your caloric intake through nutritious food is the best way to lose weight safely and effectively. Exercise is, by and large, a means to make your body strong, fight disease, ease aches and pains associated with age, illness and injury, and to ward off mental and physical deterioration.
In this column I’ll share some of my own experience with this frustrating and stubbornly persistent myth, but you don’t have to take my word for it. A quick Internet search will familiarize you with the latest research on the subject, and I encourage you to investigate this for yourself.
For my purposes in this column I want to stay true to my mission of encouraging exercise and explaining why we should do it. I also want to detail four reasons I believe promoting working out as a surefire way to lose weight is actually detrimental to people’s exercise habits.
When health professionals and fitness experts focus too much on exercise as a means of weight loss, people looking to shed pounds are at risk of dropping their training routine completely when they ultimately don’t see the expected results. Why might that happen? Consider this. Exercise makes you hungry. Once you’ve expended stores of energy during your sweat session, your body will inevitably signal your brain to replenish those stores, giving you hunger pangs. In theory this isn’t a problem. We should replace what we’ve lost with nutritious foods. However, in practice this could cause a problem because many of us overestimate how many calories we’ve burned while working out and tend to overeat as a result. Done over time, any weight-loss benefits gained from paying attention to caloric intake will be wiped out from post-workout binges, making folks frustrated and pushing some of them to stop exercising altogether.
Training only in hopes of losing weight will shift focus away from all the body-healthy benefits exercise brings. If you’re exercising regularly and only notice the number on the scale, you might miss how great you feel, how much energy you have, added strength and shape, increased flexibility, better balance, improved coordination and the myriad of other fabulous things that happen to you when you work up a sweat on a regular basis. This would be a real shame, because paying attention to how your body feels and moves is often what keeps you keeping on, no matter what the scale says.
If someone successfully loses weight while eating properly and exercising, they might be inclined to stop training once they reach their goals. This is a mistake. Even though the number on the scale might stay the same, especially if they continue making smart food choices, their overall health will decline and their risk of disease, especially later in life, will slowly increase.
If you’re eating properly and lifting appropriate amounts of weight regularly, you might gain weight in the form of increased muscle mass. This uptick on the scale might threaten the exercise mindset of anyone looking to lose weight. And just like the other scenarios I’ve mentioned, it might move someone to quit training.
As promised, I'll tell you about my own experiences. I’ve trained consistently for 25 years. However, I usually carry about 15 extra pounds. In fact, the only times I’ve lost significant amounts of weight is when I’ve consistently cut out sweets (my weakness), and practiced portion control during meals. FULL STOP! I have never, repeat never, been able to lose weight solely through my workouts.
For example, when I first started exercising regularly in college, I worked out steadily for about two months with little to no weight loss. I wasn’t able to drop 22 pounds until I took a hard look at what I was feeding myself and made smart changes to my diet. This has been my experience throughout my exercise journey.
What I do enjoy, however, is wonderful health. I’m rarely sick, and, when I do contract the odd cold, it’s usually mild and passes quickly. I feel fantastic nearly 100 percent of the time, and I’m able to fight fatigue, depression, and anxiety through regular movement and the simple joy it brings. My body is flexible and I have good balance, two things that have proved crucial as I’ve gotten older.
I don’t say this to brag, and I hope it doesn’t come across that way. My fitness regime brings me a lot of happiness and purpose to my life, and I’m praying it will really pay off as I enter old age, hopefully, disease free. I want the same for my friends, family, and anyone taking the time to read this. I hope through my column I can continue to share my story, my limited wisdom, and my joy and love of exercise to inspire and motivate you to make fitness a regular and happy part of your life.
Carissa D. Lamkahouan is a 24-year veteran of the writing game, having published in newspapers and magazines both in her native United States and abroad. A wife and mother of three, she converted to Islam in 2005 and spent a year living in Morocco, where she published a blog of her experiences. Nowadays, she covers news, fitness, religion and anything else that pops onto her radar from her home in Houston, Texas.