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Beginning a new year means waitlists for exercise classes and more people at the gym. New Year resolutions and guilt from holiday binging lead to an increased interest in fitness. If you look around the gym, you’ll see more people on the cardio machines and more at the weights, working on building muscle. If these people are just there to lose pounds, they may as well go home before signing up for a gym membership. They are going to stop going in a month or two. That’s once they get frustrated that they didn’t lose weight after all that calorie-burning. They learned (the hard way) that exercising doesn’t mean weight loss.

There Are Health Benefits of Exercise

Now, we’re not saying exercise is bad. Some of us don’t like doing it… but it’s not bad. It’s crucial for the overall function of your body. Some of the great benefits of physical activity are:

There are many benefits to exercise, and we highly encourage finding an exercise program that works for you. Strength training or resistance training helps tone the muscles. Aerobic exercise increases the heart rate and benefits the cardiovascular system and lungs. You don’t have to become a sprinter; moderate-intensity exercise works just fine. But weight loss and fat loss aren’t guaranteed.

Weight Loss Isn’t Just Burning Calories

People have been told the myth of counting calories for so long that they believe if they just ate less and exercised more, they would lose body weight. But exercise isn’t what’s holding them back, nor is the number of calories they consume. The body is a dynamic system, and there are many variables impacting the functioning of that system. Some people will heavily restrict calories and see an initial weight loss when they have a calorie deficit. Unfortunately, that won’t last. The body is like a Swiss watch and cannot operate at a deficit over the long term. The body will adapt and will find ways to survive on fewer calories.

Not all calories are the same, and not all diets work for each individual. That’s why counting calories doesn’t work for long-term weight loss. A system that treats 100 calories of cookies and 100 calories of kale the same way will not work. You didn’t think you could get out of eating your vegetables to eat fewer calories, did you? Of course not, but many people do. Your body requires nutrients, and if it’s not getting them, function will go down. You cannot exercise and still eat garbage food. Your body will still crave more food because it needs nutrients. See, it’s not just about the number of calories you eat or burn.

Sugar and Weight Gain

Many factors can impact why an individual cannot lose weight or change their body composition. Sometimes it’s their diet, but that doesn’t mean calorie intake. The hunter-gatherers of the past may have had an even higher energy intake than we do. One of the biggest culprits in our modern-day culture is too much sugar, carbs, and processed foods. It’s not the fat. Sugar is the real culprit. It’s hiding in most processed foods, and the average American eats 146 pounds each year. Sugar causes weight gain, inflammation, and damage to the body. If you’re trying to eat low-fat, you might not notice all the added sugar sneaking into your diet.

The thing about sugar is that it’s addicting. Studies have shown sugar can be more neurologically rewarding than cocaine. It’s no wonder so many people have a hard time giving it up! Of course, it’s hard when people are exposed to this addicting substance regularly. Go to your pantry or cupboard. Check a ketchup bottle, a can of spaghetti sauce, or a box of cereal. How much added sugar is in there? For most of us, it’s too much.

Hormones and Weight Loss

That sugar you ate could have impacted your hormones. It definitely caused inflammation in your gut, where neurotransmitters like serotonin are made. Too much sugar can also overwork your liver and pancreas, which help with the conversion and creation of hormones. But it’s not just sugar that impacts your hormones.

Foods that are phytoestrogens, like soy, can also mess with your hormones. Our modern lifestyles mean we encounter a lot of chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, that alter hormones. Chemicals in beauty products, household cleaners, pesticides, and even chemicals in our water are some ways we encounter endocrine disruptors.

Stress is one of the biggest killers of hormonal health in women. If your body is under high levels of stress, it will convert hormones into cortisol, throwing off your hormonal balance. If you’re under constant stress, your body will find ways to adapt, including holding on to fat, because fatty tissue is a place the body can make estrogens (besides the ovaries). It’s vital to find ways to reduce your stress.

Your hormones might be the thing that is holding you back from weight loss. Increasing your exercise might be messing those hormones up even more. Why? Exercising can add more stress to your body than it can handle.

Learn more about when women should exercise in this video:

Inflammation Adds Inches

If I stomp on your toe, what happens to it? It swells up from inflammation. If I keep stomping on that toe, it keeps swelling up. But what if you exercise? Will that stop the swelling? No, of course it won’t. Exercise cannot help with weight management if your increased weight is because of inflammation. This is an example of why exercising doesn’t mean weight loss. Regular, intense exercise can actually cause more inflammation.

Chronic inflammation from inflammatory foods, traumas, chemicals, allergies, or illness, can add inches and water retention to your body. You might not need to lose weight. You might need to lose the inflammation, and exercise cannot help with that.

Stress Doesn’t Help

If you’re thinking of keeping the calories down or using exercise to burn calories, here’s something important to consider: Calorie restriction increases both emotional and physical stress in the body. Decreasing calories increases the primary stress marker, cortisol… and that can keep you from losing weight. Besides that, trying to promote energy balance by adding extra activity adds even more stress, sabotaging your weight loss goals. Low intensity exercise didn’t significantly raise cortisol levels

Exercising Doesn’t Mean Weight Loss

It happens year after year. The gyms get flooded with people who are determined to get fitter and lose weight in the new year. If it were that easy, the gym wouldn’t seem so empty a few months later. Along the way, these people learn that exercising doesn’t mean weight loss. There’s more to it than restricting the calories you take in while increasing energy expenditure. It’s not just about the amount of calories the body burns. While physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, if you are looking for weight loss, you’ll need to find out what caused the increased body fat. Working with a proficient provider can help you find out what’s keeping you from losing weight.

Resources:

  1. Exercise and mental health: many reasons to move – PubMed (nih.gov)
  2. Exercise and the cardiovascular system: clinical science and cardiovascular outcomes – PubMed (nih.gov)
  3. Exercise and type 2 diabetes: molecular mechanisms regulating glucose uptake in skeletal muscle – PubMed (nih.gov)
  4. Exercise Early and Often: Effects of Physical Activity and Exercise on Women’s Bone Health – PubMed (nih.gov)
  5. Exercise training improves sleep quality in middle-aged and older adults with sleep problems: a systematic review – PubMed (nih.gov)
  6. Recent advances in understanding resistance exercise training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy in humans – PubMed (nih.gov)
  7. A meta-analytic review of the effects of exercise on brain-derived neurotrophic factor – PubMed (nih.gov)
  8. Physical activity and obesity in children – PubMed (nih.gov)
  9. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit – PubMed (nih.gov)
  10. Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol – PMC (nih.gov)
  11. Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: the intensity threshold effect – PubMed (nih.gov)
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