On Monday mornings, I wake up and start preparing to hit the gym. I get my 2-year-old daughter dressed and ready for the day. I feed my 4-month-old son, change his diaper, and put him in fresh clothes. I get my work-out clothes on while thinking to myself, “these will look so much cuter when I’m 10 pounds lighter,” which makes me even more excited to start my work-out. While I’m brushing my teeth, I look over to see my 2-year-old decorating her face with mascara and then trying to share it with her little brother. I take it away and begin cleaning her face when I hear my son spit-up. I take off his now not-so-fresh clothes and replace them with clean ones. My daughter sees this as her opportunity to find and use any other bathroom products I might have left out on the counter. An hour and a half and 16 disasters later we’re finally ready to get in the car. “This is all going to be worth it,” I think, “when I’m slipping into those skinny jeans and they don’t get stuck on my thighs.” Monday’s workout begins with the treadmill. I know I should stretch, but I hate stretching. I don’t want to waste my precious work-out time stretching. I jump on the treadmill and pump it up to a speed of 7 to start. I know I should “warm-up to prevent injury,” but that just sounds like another way to waste time. I start doing intervals, toggling back and forth between 7mph and 10mph. Every time I take it to 10mph, I feel like my arms and legs are flailing everywhere to keep up with the belt on the machine. I know I look crazy now, but I’m too busy getting super slim to care. After 45 minutes of that, I head into my step-aerobics class. I set up my step next to a petite brunette. She bears a striking resemblance to Eva Longoria. I notice her perfect make-up and hair, which is cascading down her shoulders. I catch a glimpse of my own reflection in the large mirrors. My hair, which looks plastered to my head with sweat, is pulled back into the tightest ponytail possible to ensure not a single strand can escape and slow me down while I’m melting the fat away. My cheeks are a radiant shade of purple. I wipe the sweat off of of my forehead and before I put the towel down, I’m dripping again. I notice my shirt has a giant sweat mark right along my sports bra line. Nice. I can feel the sweat dripping along my back and my arms. I look back over to Eva Longoria’s look-alike as I adjust my step and think, “That’s okay. I’m getting so much better of a work-out than she is. How can she expect to get a good calorie-burn in with her hair down?” An hour later I pick up my kids from the child watch area and head home, knowing I’ve burned somewhere in the ballpark of 1000 calories.
My typical Tuesday routine goes very much the same way. However, instead of a step-aerobics class, I take “Balance and Flow,” which involves me doing various painful poses that some sadist dreamed up using a large exercise ball. When I’m finished, I’m not nearly sweaty enough so I conclude that I must need to do some more cardio so I head back to the treadmill. On Wednesday, it’s trying to run a sub 20-minute 5k and then using the stair-stepper. I have to stare at my feet as I do it because no matter how many times I use this machine, I feel like I’m going to fall off of it. Thursday brings a weight lifting class and spin. By Friday, my legs are really feeling it. I kind of like the feeling of sore muscles though. With each painful step, I’m reminded of the weight I’m going to lose. I drop the kids off at child watch and head to a kickboxing class. On Saturday, my husband takes the kids out for donuts while I go play tennis and go out on a nice, long, “relaxing” run.
The routine might change slightly week to week, but the compulsive need to work-out stays the same. I have loved exercise ever since I was a kid. It started out with a deep love of sports and all things competitive. As I became an adult, it turned into more of a slightly obsessive desire to exercise. I never questioned what exercise was doing for me. I was absolutely convinced that everything about it was wonderful. I was sure it was helping me “burn off steam.” I’d read all about endorphins and how much better exercise was making my mood. I was certain that without working out, my body would look awful. I’d exercised all through my pregnancies and waited eagerly after delivery for when I could return to it. I just knew that I loved exercise. Absolutely LOVED it, that is, until recently. I became irritated with some of the policies at my gym and out of stubbornness, quit. I started looking into my other options; working out on the equipment at my house, pushing kids in my jogging stroller, or other gyms in the area. Over the next week while I tried to figure out what to do, I cut way back on exercising. I didn’t mean to cut way back, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like working-out. I went jogging a couple of times, went for a bike ride, and played tennis. That was all. I hated to admit it, but I was enjoying my little break from the gym. I felt good. I was happy and relaxed, but by the end of the week, I was nervous to see what this hiatus had done to my weight. I nervously stepped on my scale and to my complete surprise saw a 4-pound loss. That must be a mistake. I got off and back on, still a 4-pound loss. Now I’m not a person who fluctuates in weight much at all. I’ve watched my husband simply skip desert for a couple of days and lose 10 pounds. For me to lose 10 pounds requires a baby to come out of me. My weight had stayed about the same for the majority of my adult life. I’ve never been overweight, but tall and curvy and always felt like I should lose 10 or even 20 pounds. Each week I would work-out as hard as I knew how and try to eat right only to be disappointed at the end of the week when I’d face the scale. Then I’d tell myself that I’d work harder the following week and be sure to see a loss. Though even when I did see a slight drop, I would be right back up the next time I weighed. Then I’d be even more frustrated with the whole situation. So, for me to see a 4-pound loss when I hadn’t worked hard was crazy. I decided to forget about working-out for a little while longer. I was about to leave on a 10-day trip to visit family anyway. Normally when I’d visit family, I would start each morning with a long run and some variation of a work-out. This time, I went on walks and played basketball instead. When I got home and weighed myself, I was down another 4 pounds. I was definitely falling out of love with exercise.
All of this prompted me to begin doing some research. I mean, as Americans we are somewhat obsessed with exercise. We spend our time and money on gym memberships and exercise gadgets, sure that it will all pay off when swim suit season arrives. According to PBS, Americans spend 40 billion dollars each year on weight loss programs and products. We spend 19 billion dollars every year on gym memberships. It’s one of the most universally accepted facts that the healthiest way to lose weight is through exercise. We’ve all heard the explanation: you take-in energy (calories) through food, you expend them through movement, and any left over are stored in your body as fat. So why weren’t my countless hours of exercise whittling away my love handles? In 2010 49.6% of Americans say they exercised on a regular basis (at least 3 times per week for at least 30 minutes each time) and another 18.5% said they exercised 1 or 2 times every week. With all of the money and time we’re devoting to exercise, you’d think our muffin tops and cottage cheese thighs would be shrinking . Yet, 63.1% of Americans are either overweight or obese.
For years we’ve absolutely known deep down in our chubby spillin’ over our pants gut that exercise is the key to weight loss. So I know it seems crazy to question it, but if you and exercise have had a somewhat one-sided relationship it may be time to try a little break. The past few months have proven to me that contrary to popular belief, the relationship between exercise and weight loss is an often misunderstood, complex relationship.
In 1932 during a lecture at the American College of Physicians, Dr. Russell Wilder, an expert in diabetes and obesity, said that his patients lost more weight on bed rest than on an exercise regime. He also said that “unusually strenuous physical exercise slows the rate of weight loss.” Everybody laughed it off, sure that there had been some mistake. How could that possibly have any truth to it? I know that if I had heard about this a few months ago, I would have thought that it was ridiculous. I mean maybe they lost weight, but that’s only because they were losing so much muscle while on bed rest. Besides, what does a doctor from 1932 know anyway? Back then they were still saying Philip Morris brand cigarettes were the cure for a sore throat and taking castor oil every week was the best thing you could do for healthy bowels.
Fast forward to present day and there are still doctors saying saying what Dr. Wilder said. The Mayo Clinic reports that studies “have demonstrated no or modest weight loss with exercise alone” and that “an exercise regimen… is unlikely to result in short-term weight loss beyond what is achieved with dietary change.” In fact in studies done with hamsters and gerbils, exercise increased body weight and body-fat percentage.
Studies don’t mean a whole lot to me until I’ve seen the results in my own life. There are contradicting studies for nearly every topic. I had a trainer show me a study that proved that keeping my heart rate in the fat burning zone for more than 20 minutes was the most beneficial for losing weight. A few months later, another trainer (at the SAME gym) showed me an article all about how it’s much better to keep your heart rate in the cardio zone because it burns more calories overall. One person shows me facts about after-burn. Other “facts” show that after-burn is a myth. It seems there are studies for nearly everything, which made me decide to heed Buddha’s advice: “Believe nothing. No matter where you read it, or who said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” So, taking everything I read that came from other people’s studies with a grain of salt, I’ve tried to figure out exactly what’s going on in my body and what is best for shedding the pounds. I’ve come to two basic conclusions concerning exercise and weight-loss: exercise causes us to over-compensate on extra calories later and cardio is the wrong kind of exercise.
Exercise makes you hungry. Your burning through your body’s fuel so your body tells you that you need to fill up the tank again. Hugo Rony in a textbook titled Obesity and Leanness said, “Vigorous muscle exercise usually results in immediate demand for a large meal. Consistently high or low energy expenditures result in consistently high or low levels of appetite. Thus men doing heavy physical work spontaneously eat more than men engaged in sedentary occupations.”
There are a few people who fight hard against our basic psychology and win. They work-out, feel hungry, and simply ignore the feeling. I am not one of those people. I always thought that I could journal exactly what I was eating, exercise incessantly, and count on the pounds to start falling off. However, there was always a bite here and a snack there that I wouldn’t write down. Then there would be a Saturday where I was out all day with my husband or a day I was feeling stressed out and I would forget calorie counting all together. I was always amazed at how much I wanted. It wasn’t comfort eating. I was hungry! My poor overworked body wanted the fuel and it pushed until I fed it. Those extra bites and snacks started adding up until my body had compensated, or more than compensated, for what I had burned off that morning. Even though it was generally healthy food, it still added up.
The International Journal of Obesity published a paper by Steven Gortmaker, head of Harvard’s Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity, and Kendrin Sonneville from Children’s Hospital Boston, saying that “there is a widespread assumption that increasing activity will result in a net reduction in any energy gap.” Simply stated, most people believe that moving more will reduce the difference between the calories you burn and the calories you consume. However, Gortmaker and Sonneville did an 18-month study of 538 students and found that when kids start to exercise, they eat more and not just a few calories more, but an average of 100 calories more than they had just burned!
Cardio does burn through calories quickly, and more specifically it can burn through fat calories quickly. However, if you’re not absolutely meticulous about counting calories, you’ll more often than not overcompensate for those calories later. I DO NOT want to be constantly counting calories or obsessing over what I eat. Resistance training, on the other hand, builds muscle, which in turn, burns fat. Resistance training does not mean that you’ll end up looking like a body builder. It means that you’ll be toned and lean. The more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism works so you’ll be burning fat around the clock, but without the constant nagging hungry feeling you get when burning through hundreds of calories doing cardio.
When weight-loss is the goal, cardiovascular exercise is not the way to go. It will just cause you to overcompensate for those calories later. The best way to achieve weight-loss is through a healthy diet and resistance training.