If you are exercising regularly, but don’t see the numbers going down on the scale, you might be misguided about the best way to lose weight. Many people fall into the trap that exercise alone will make the pounds come off. The training montages in action movies, extreme weight loss programs on TV, and fitness success stories can motivate us, but they paint an unrealistic picture about the role of exercise in losing weight. How has this idea gained so much credit?
The human body contains fat mass and lean mass, which includes muscle. It’s scientifically proven that muscle is the body’s best fat burner, and that having more muscle will lead to weight loss. And how do you get more muscle? Because it is most associated with muscle development, the most popular answer is through exercise. This probably explains why it is widely accepted as a primary weight loss solution.
The truth is, it is extremely difficult to lose weight from exercise alone. A pound of fat is 3500 calories. In order to burn off that pound, you would need to bike ride for about seven hours. But wait, we haven’t even counted the calories you’re consuming from food. If you are consuming 2000 calories a day, you would we need to work out for four hours a day just to maintain the same weight. You would end up working out over 40 hours a week to lose weight, and that’s if everything is perfect.
It is much easier to cut calories out of your diet than burn them through exercise. Let’s go back to the example of the pound of fat. If you regularly eat two small bags of potato chips a day, you’re consuming about 500 calories from these snacks. If you cut this treat out for one week, the calories you save will add up to a pound of fat.
Increasing physical activity has many health benefits, but the part it plays in weight loss isn’t as large as the public may think. Let’s take a look at the role of exercise in the different stages of weight loss:
Weight Loss Beginner
You are now on the road to weight loss, and like any journey, you must choose a path. The key to losing weight is consuming fewer calories than you burn, and developing healthy eating habits is your ticket to long-term success. First you need to know how many calories you’re eating. This sounds easy enough, but more often than not we eat a lot more than we think. A study by Cornell University found that overweight people tend to underestimate the calories they are consuming by 40 percent. The best way to count calories is to record your meals in a food journal.
As a weight loss beginner, you will need to increase your knowledge of your calorie sources- proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and sugars. Each of these sources can have vastly different effects on hunger, metabolism, and regions of the brain that control food intake. Protein-rich foods will boost your metabolism and curb your appetite while sugary foods may reduce your brain’s ability to release signals of fullness, causing you to eat more. As you increase your nutrition knowledge, you will find foods that both facilitate weight loss and you enjoy eating.
Now that you’re eating healthier, you will begin to notice the number on the scale going down. Weight loss will bring about changes to your body mass composition. As you shed pounds, your ratio of lean mass to fat mass will improve. This means you will start having more muscle tissue than fat from dieting alone. And as we all know, muscle is our body’s best calorie burner!
Continuing to Lose Weight
You have lost weight and noticed differences in how you look and feel. But after your initial weight loss, you may struggle to lose more weight and hit a plateau. As you weigh less, your body will require fewer calories or more physical activity to sustain your lower body weight. This is a time when you can start to consider exercise as part of your weight loss program. The added exercise will help build muscle and burn more calories to help break the plateau. Hitting a plateau should also encourage you to reexamine your eating habits. You may be have grown comfortable with your food plan and begun overestimating your portion sizes.
Maintaining Your Weight Loss Success
Now that you’ve reached your weight loss goal, this isn’t a time to revert to old unhealthy habits. Managing weight is a lifelong process. Exercise is a marker for long-term weight loss. In a study published in the journal Obesity, more than half of all participants that were successful at losing weight were able to keep it off through diet and exercise alone after 8 years. Find an exercise program that works for you, and keep that weight off!
Bottom line: What you consume is most important for achieving weight loss. Exercise has many health benefits but shouldn’t be viewed as a be-all end-all weight loss solution. However, as you develop your nutritional knowledge and healthy eating habits, exercise plays an important component in long term weight maintenance.