What’s the problem with relying on exercise for losing weight?

A little while ago in a previous blog post I talked about doing extra exercise as a possible way of helping to balance out that bit of overindulgence – click here to read the post I’m talking about.  This week I’m going to talk about how physical activity can be counterproductive in weight management.

I’ve frequently had clients come to me, all excited, telling me that they’ve been really active and they’re bound to have lost weight this week.  Then they step on the scales and they’re disappointed to see that they haven’t lost anything or even that they’ve gained weight.  Now this is where a lot of people would turn to me and say “it must be that I’ve gained muscle mustn’t it?”  Unfortunately I have to tell them that unless they are following an intensive weight-training programme it’s unlikely that they’ve gained significant muscle mass over the course of just a week.  If weight-loss isn’t occurring, but you lose inches then this could be related to muscle gain, however these changes are likely to be gradual.  Inch loss is something we would measure monthly to get an accurate result – any changes in the short-term are likely to be differences in fluid balance.  If you are losing fat and increasing muscle mass you will notice that you feel firmer too.

Another response I often get to this result on the scales is “well doing exercise just doesn’t work!”  I can understand the frustration at working hard and seeing no immediate result, but this is a particularly unhelpful attitude as it leads to quitting before giving it a chance.  Remember energy doesn’t come from nowhere and it can’t go to nowhere; being more active can help you to lose weight, but only if overall you are using more energy than you are taking in from the food you eat.  Click here for my previous post on energy balance.

weight maintenance
The bottom line of weight management is energy balance


So what’s going on if I’ve exercised loads all week and it’s not showing up on the scales?

There could be a few things going on.

1.      The first thing to consider is that there could be a delayed response.  Weight-loss doesn’t occur perfectly each week for everybody, for some people, the scales show a loss every other week or different amounts each week.  If you’re making small, sustainable changes to your eating/exercising habits then it can take a while for the weight-loss to show on the scales.  Remember weight is a result of energy in versus energy out, and what you’ve been doing overall for the past week, or even two or three weeks, will have an impact on what the scales tell you.  The most helpful attitude to have is to focus on life changes – the bigger picture – the benefit to your health generally and the weight loss will follow.  However if you’re only looking for results in the short-term you are likely to give up or find it hard in the long-term.  So stick at it – you will feel better in the long-term for being more active and the scales will probably show your weight-loss next week (as long as you keep sticking to the changes you’ve made!).

2.     The next thing to consider is whether you are being entirely honest with yourself about exactly how active you’ve been.  I had a client once tell me that they ‘walk loads’, which sounds great.  However on further questioning it turned out that she went for a wander round her local park once or twice each week and probably covered around a mile in about an hour.  Although this is a good start (everyone’s got to start somewhere) – average walking speed is about 3 miles per hour.  So my client wasn’t walking very fast or meeting the minimum recommendations for health – 150mins per week of moderate intensity exercise – click here for more information.  Ask yourself about that hour you spend at the gym – how much of it are you actually spending exercising?  If you’ve been exercising regularly and it doesn’t seem to be making a difference to your weight anymore –  ask yourself are you finding your routine easy?  Is there some way that you could pick up the pace?  Maybe you could set yourself a challenge to run/cycle that little bit further or faster next time?

3.     The last thing to consider – and this is probably the most important point – is whether or not you’ve been overcompensating for the exercise you’ve done.  What I mean by this is that there could be a possibility that you are eating more to account for the extra exercise.  This could be a subconscious thing where you’re having a little extra here and there.  Or are you convincing yourself that you can have a little extra treat, because you’ve been working hard?  Now there is nothing wrong with having treats and if you’re only doing the exercise so that you can have a little extra treat occasionally without gaining weight then that’s fine.  However if your goal is to lose weight then that extra treat is unnecessary and unhelpful.  Often people not only overestimate how much energy they have burnt during exercise, but they also underestimate how much energy is in the treat they give themselves.  This is the most probable reason for weight gain despite increasing physical activity.  To overcome this it’s important to be totally honest with yourself about what you have been doing.  The best way to keep track of your eating habits is to keep a diet diary – you could also record the exercise you are doing to monitor your progress.

Above all it’s important to remember that in terms of managing your weight for life – making changes to physical activity levels is the same as making changes to your eating habits – whatever you do to lose the weight, you need to stick to it forever.  So it’s important to make sure any changes are sustainable.

NB – always check with your GP or physiotherapist before starting a new exercise programme or increasing intensity.

e-book cover bordered

If you want to increase your physical activity levels, but you’re struggling to get yourself going – check out my e-book ‘Your Guide to Self-motivation” – click here to get your copy for FREE.

Louise Tanner-Stokes
Hi I'm Louise, a Food Relationship Coach and registered Dietitian with a passion for helping mums to ditch dieting forever. I help you to eat normally again, enjoy your food and still lose weight.

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