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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Skinny on Exercise and Weight

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If you haven't already gotten this message from my blog yet, here it is again: The most important thing you can do for your health is to exercise!

Exercising regularly reduces your risk of diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, Alzheimer's and many other causes of death, and helps to manage stress, alleviate depression and anxiety, boosts self-esteem, and the list goes on!

Unfortunately, motivating people to do something for their health is really tough.  Believe me, after being a fitness instructor and personal trainer for over 20 years and a therapist who supports people to make health behaviour changes, I know this all to well!

Frequently the problem is that people feel invincible. They may not yet have any health problems, so just changing their lifestyle for the sake of prevention isn't at the top of their list of priorities.  If people do have a health issue already, then they often lack energy, which makes it difficult for them to believe they are capable of exercise and they cannot fight inertia, despite the fact they may know that once they are exercising regularly they will have a lot more energy.

The reality is that probably most people who do exercise, or even aspire to exercise, are motivated by the idea that it will help them lose weight and make them look better.  After all, looking better comes with more perceived immediate benefits than fighting off chronic illness, particularly if you are young.

But most experts say that when it comes to your weight, what you eat matters far more than exercise.  In fact, some believe exercise has almost no impact on weight.  So, assuming you aren't really concerned about your long term health (you should be!), is there any point in exercising if your goal is appearance-related?

The answer is ABSOLUTELY YES!

Here is why the research on the relationship between exercise and weight-loss is so confusing.  First off, any study using self-reported exercise is subject to huge reliability problems.  People often over-report their exercise to make a positive impression, just like they under-report their food intake.  In addition, even if they are attempting to report it accurately, most people are reporting the activity, not their level of effort/exertion.  For example, I would say almost 50% of the people who take my spinning class each week are not keeping up at all.  So on a survey, while they may report taking spinning classes 3x per week, and spinning might be coded on a survey as a rigorous workout, in reality, they are 'attending' a spinning class, but not working rigorously at all.

In fact, when I look around the gym, I would say a lot of people are not getting much out of their workouts.  People clamour to the elliptical machines and then hop on and read or gabber with friends, not moving fast enough to really get their heart rate up.  Folks in the weight room do a set without working to failure, and then rest for 2 minutes between each set, essentially just wasting time.  Or, they haphazardly walk around grabbing a dumbbell or cable and lift or pull without knowing what they are doing or even what body part they are trying to target. There is a big difference between 'going to the gym' and actually 'getting a workout'.

When the research is a little more refined, we get more answers about the inconsistent data.  Several studies have shown that your attitude towards exercise matters too.  People who dislike it and see it as punishment, will generally compensate by rewarding themselves with food.  Obviously this makes it impossible to lose weight, since as I have pointed out many times before, it may take an hour to burn 500 calories, but you can eat that back in minutes.  This is why exercise should be thought of as a gift (you are fortunate if you are ABLE to exercise!), and one you do for your health and wellness, rather than just calorie burning.  Just like you wouldn't wash your mouth with corn syrup just because you'd brushed your teeth that morning, you shouldn't eat a donut just because you exercised! It also speaks to the importance of finding an activity you enjoy. 

What you do also matters.  Pilates and yoga are not efficient ways to lose weight.  The best strategy is strength training and cardio, to burn fat and increase your overall metabolism.

Recent research has proven that some people's bodies respond more dramatically to exercise than others.  So if your physique is your focus, you may have to try different activities until you find the combination that works best for you.  Avoid comparing yourself to others and getting discouraged too.  We are all unique and some people will have an easier time creating muscle definition, or a flat stomach or a tiny waist. 

Longitudinal studies show that people who lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off do so by a combination of dietary changes and regular exercise.  But even if you haven't an ounce of weight to lose, you should be exercising every day.  Yes, EVERY SINGLE DAY.  This doesn't mean running or weight-lifting, necessarily. It means being active in some way, shape or form.  Our bodies are meant to move.  If you are only interested in a hotter bod, than exercise is still important, you just have to do it right, and combine it with a healthy diet and sufficient sleep/recovery.

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