This is a myth that is in desperate need of busting.
First off, allow me to explain the three things that exercise does do, ranked in order of importance:
1. You get a “training effect.” You get faster, stronger, more flexible, healthier inside and out, and just basically more awesome.
2. If you become a regular exerciser in a mindful way, it gives you the power to make wiser and calorically restricted food choices.
3. It burns calories.
For people like me, who exercise intensely about ten hours a week, this can be a lot of calories that can lead to significant weight loss. Still, I need to watch what I eat in order to stay lean. Diet is the most important part of weight loss, and there are some critics of exercise who say that exercising will “work up an appetite” and cause you to actually gain weight.
It sounds good in theory. If you exercise really hard then you are going to want to eat more to fuel that exercise, right? That axiom about working up an appetite has been around for a long time, hasn’t it? Well, when you actually look at the science, this is not the case at all.
One study found that the effects of exercise on short- and long-term energy intake were negligible. Another found that there was little difference in hunger and satiety between exercisers and non-exercisers. And a third showed that hunger levels were actually lower post-exercise than in a group that didn’t exercise.
There is also the fact that stress can lead to eating, and exercise is proven to reduce stress, creating an environment better for making healthy food choices.
However, there is one trap regarding exercise that you have to watch out for, and that is the reward mentality. Canadian nutrition blogger and obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff wrote about this in a post he entitled, “Three meal time words that can cripple weight loss.” Those three words are “because I exercised.”
Have you ever decided to order cheesecake because you exercised? If yes, then you fell for the trap. Many people will burn off 300 calories on an elliptical trainer or treadmill and then undo it all and then some with a 500 calorie treat, and that’s just bad math.
The real trick here is one of understanding. You need to understand that exercise does not allow you to reward your efforts with eating junk, but instead is something that trains your brain and gives you the will to resist junk and make healthier choices. Yes, exercise is an absolutely critical component of weight loss, but only slightly because of its caloric burning potential.
When you get that training effect you start to feel like a healthier person and can crave higher performance fuel as a result. This is where the mindfulness comes in: You need to think about what you eat less from a pleasure-deriving perspective and more from a fuelling your body’s engine point of view.
Just think to yourself, people who are workout warriors don’t need cheesecake.
This doesn’t mean you never cheat, but understand the math. Learn how many calories you burn in day, including how many from all the exercise you do. Then understand the calories in the food you eat. Focus on creating a moderate negative number (250-1000 calories per day) of a sustainable basis and you will lose weight.
And don’t forget to pick an exercise you enjoy.
James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get a free metabolism report at Body For Wife. Email James at firstname.lastname@example.org.