Monday, March 15, 2010

Does exercise help you lose weight? Really?

It's no secret that I work out. I work out a lot. I do cardio every day and strength training 3 days a week. I don't schedule myself any off days, as I figure life does that for me often enough. I also don't make excuses, and only have days off from exercise when circumstances really do prohibit it. I generally end up taking 3-4 days a month off exercise.

Having said that, I don't believe it has much direct impact on the amount of weight I lose. It seems that there are plenty of experts that agree with me.

The belief that exercise helps weight loss is a fairly modern concept. At one point, obesity physicians were more likely to prescribe bed rest then time on the treadmill.

When you exercise, you do burn calories. Everyone knows that weight loss is a formula of calories in versus calories out, right? So, exercise should help you lose weight, right?

In reality, it's not that simple. This article talks about the compensation effect. When a person exercises, they tend to compensate by eating more. Increasing your activity increases your appetite and your cravings. It makes it harder to resist the high caloric foods. If you don't compensate by eating more, it's common to compensate by moving less later on. Perhaps that means you plunk yourself on the couch to watch a movie rather then getting housework done, but chances are good you compensate to some degree.

And, if you're going to talk about calories, it's not nearly as simple as a little calculation. The number of calories burned while working out is often exaggerated. For one thing, the calorie readout the machine gives you is far from accurate. For another, you burn calories doing nothing, but when getting the readout from the machine, most people don't subtract the number of calories they would have burned anyways.

Ultimately, weight loss is primarily affected by what you eat.

So, why exercise then? For myself, I have a few reasons.

I exercise because while I don't believe it has a direct impact on my weight loss, I do believe it has an indirect impact. When I exercise, it keeps my head in the right mindset. I eat better overall. Perhaps it increases my appetite, but my real "trouble eating" has never been based on hunger. When I'm exercising, I'm more likely to eat a (small) handful of nuts or an extra fruit to compensate. The times I'll grab a pastry are the times when I'm bored and lethargic.

I exercise because I like what it does to my body and what my body can accomplish because of it. I want to have arms where I can see muscles. I want to be capable of hiking up a mountain without repeatedly stopping to catch my breath. I want to keep up with my 3 year old and 1 year old. I still want to keep up with them when they're 5, 10 or 20.

I exercise because this isn't just about losing the weight. One day I will have no more weight left to lose and I will need something new to work towards. Having new fitness goals will allow me to maintain the weight for the rest of my life.

So, do I exercise to lose weight? No. But, I exercise for my health, just like I'm losing weight for my health.

What about you? What are your reasons for exercising?

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