The reality behind weight loss and flashy fitness headlines, and some tips on how to eat, exercise and see results.
Sarah Hays Coomer
Reporting on the results of a research review that compiled data from 99 other studies, a Huffington Post article “Increased Exercise Doesn’t Seem to Boost Calorie Intake After All” essentially told readers who hope to lose weight not to fret about overeating due to exercise. They declared that it was “good news for fitness fans who have weight loss on the brain.”
The problem is, in real life, most people struggle to lose weight no matter how much they are working out. They hit the gym and try to eat well, but remain stuck at the same weight year-after-infuriating-year. There’s an imbalance between effort and results.
There are a host of holes in the research quoted by Huffington Post, the most concerning being that 40% of the studies were short-term (24 hours or less) and focused on small groups (median size 12 people). The participants had a median BMI of 22.9 (normal) and most were in their early-20s. Young, healthy people have high metabolisms and energy to burn, and how much they eat in response to exercise over the course of 24 hours doesn’t seem particularly applicable to how the rest of us might respond over the course of years. Another 10% of the studies lasted only 2-14 days.
As a personal trainer, I see how frequently people, women in particular, tend to increase their caloric intake in tandem with increased exercise routines. Pretty much everyone on the planet who has ever tried to lose weight with exercise alone will tell you that it doesn’t work. So what’s happening? If we are increasing our metabolism and burning more calories, why aren’t we losing weight??
The math is working against us. It takes a lot of effort to burn 500 extra calories a day, and it’s so very easy to eat a muffin to put that 500 calories right back on. Even the slightest increase in your daily intake can undo hours of good old-fashioned sweat.
There are two prevailing theories about why most people don’t lose weight when they exercise without dietary changes:
- They compensate with extra calories, not because exercise drives them to do so, but as a sort of subconscious reward for the extra activity they did. (You feel that energy burn and slap a bagel with cream cheese face down right on top of it.)
- When people engage in more vigorous physical activity, they tend to be more sedentary in the rest of their lives. (I killed it at the gym so now I can veg at my desk all day and on my couch all night.) Again, it’s subconscious, a natural physiological balancing mechanism. You're not doing it on purpose.
The research review specifically states, “Our conclusions should be cautiously interpreted as they are based on both data from sub-optimal study designs… and from randomized trials with a high risk of one or more forms of bias.” So, rather than flashing headlines across major media outlets, we might all be better off taking the results with a grain of salt.
If you really want to lose weight, a few things to know…
1. Don’t starve. Eat a lot. Keep yourself full of high fiber, water-dense foods (a.k.a. fruits and vegetables) and nutrient-rich proteins like nut butters or sustainably-caught seafood. You may have to force yourself, at first, to snack on the good stuff because what you really want is a cookie, but whatever you do, don’t let yourself get too hungry.
2. Eat food you like. As you look for sustenance to keep you full, branch out. Find new healthy foods you actually enjoy. You’ve got zero chance of sticking with healthier eating if you are choking down bland food that you hate.
3. Exercise because it will keep your muscles strong, not because it will necessarily help you lose weight on its own. You’ll sleep better, look better, and feel better if you move more, and those are reasons enough.
Dropping pounds can feel like it takes a heroic effort. There are factors working against you everywhere you turn, including flashy fitness headlines that are debatable at best. It’s hard to lose weight, but it is possible.
If the researchers in this study are right, exercise might not make you consume extra calories in and of itself. But if common sense and personal experience tell you that exercise alone isn’t doing the trick for you, pay closer attention to your diet as you pursue your goal. Keep working out. Try new things. Stay full of whole, healthy food, and choose activities and foods that light your fire.
Sarah Hays Coomer is a writer/blogger from Nashville, Tennessee. She is a Certified Personal Trainer with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and is a certified Nutrition and Wellness Counselor and Prenatal Fitness Specialist with the American Fitness Professionals Association.