I know, I know. You are probably thinking that I made an error typing out the title of this blog post. Nope. Despite the fact that I am a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer, and group exercise instructor in Cambridge, MA I firmly believe that using exercise as a means to lose weight can actually be harmful. Yes, you heard me right. And I wanted to yell Hallelujah when I came across this Time article “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.” Please take the time to read it! Then forward it along to all of your family members and friends.
Here are the basic take home points I’d like you to think about:
1. Intense bouts of calorie-burning exercise (think 60 minutes on a piece of cardio equipment or your favorite cycling class) stimulate your appetite. Consequently, most people unknowingly eat more calories than they just burned after intense exercise. If you don’t believe me, check out the research cited in the Times article under the heading “The Compensation Problem.”
I have a saying which goes “You can’t outrun your fork.” And it’s true. We can eat in 10 minutes what would take us 10 hours to burn off. I’m sorry for that- it’s simply the way we humans have evolved.
2. Replacing fat tissue with lean muscle mass does not do much to increase our metabolic rates- no matter how much your personal trainer would like you to believe otherwise. In fact, replacing 10 lbs of fat with 10 lbs of muscle leads to a paltry increase of 40 calories burned. 40 calories? That’s the equivalent of 2 Hershey’s Kisses- just 2!
3.) A butt-blasting, cardio kicking workout often creates the halo effect. How many times have you finished an intense workout, only to indulge afterwards. Hey, you burned a lot of calories after that 60 minute hill climb on the treadmill. Next thing you know, you’ve gone totally overboard at dinner…but with good intentions to “make up for it” tomorrow. It’s an endless and tireless feedback loop.
I have seen this feedback loop in full force in the work I do in eating disorders as well as working with healthy populations. Using exercise to burn calories fuels disordered eating patterns (i.e. a few extra cookies because you’ve been “good.”)
4.) Excessive exercise can lead to overly sore muscles and a feeling of heaviness that can actually lead to more hours of sedentary down time when you aren’t working out.
Please know that I am not suggesting that you stop exercising all together. Exercise provides a host of benefits:
**Enhances heart health and helps to prevent chronic disease
**Improves mental capacity and cognitive ability
**Helps regulate mood by decreasing anxiety and improving feelings of depression
**Supports a healthy immune system
**Helps maintain muscle mass and flexibility, which is crucial for maintaining function as we age
**Improves balance and helps to prevent falls in the elderly
This is not an exhaustive list. Clearly I’m in full support of a healthy exercise program. But the research shows that the benefits of exercise can be obtained at moderate intensities for moderate amounts of time. So now that you don’t have to spend hours burning up calories at your local gym, I wonder how you could use your time more positively. Hmmm, now that’s something to think about.