What makes you pry yourself away from your comfy bed to hit that treadmill at the gym or push yourself after a long day at work to squeeze in a sweat-inducing spinning class? Sure, you want to be healthy, but if you’re truly being honest with yourself, chances are your top reason is to look good or to lose weight. In fact, weight management is the number one motivation for women to work out.
And yet most of us fail to reach our weight loss goals, and end up right back where we started. So what gives?
The truth: We’ve been working out for the wrong reasons.
Michelle Segar, Ph.D., associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls at the University of Michigan, has spent years studying the motivations people have for engaging in exercise. Segar’s research has found that working out to lose weight is actually one of the least successful ways of getting in shape.
It’s true that many of us should be concerned about our waistlines. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than a third of Americans are obese and another 33.5 percent are overweight. Anyone with a BMI higher than 24.9 has an increased risk of diabetes, heart problems and a whole slew of other diseases. So it’s not surprising that so many of us focus on that (not so) little number on the scale and use it as our main motivation for exercising.
But when it comes to losing weight, intensifying exercise simply isn’t that good of a strategy. “Understand that you can’t out-exercise your diet,” says Brynn Jinnett, founder of Refine Method, a New York-based exercise program heavily grounded in the science of fitness. She’s 100 percent right. Studies have found that increased daily exercise by itself produces moderate weight loss results at best.
When scientists asked men to work out for either 30 or 60 minutes a day, for example, they found that both groups lost weight when compared to a control group that didn’t work out at all, but doubling the exercise didn’t double the results. In fact, the guys who worked twice as hard lost the same amount of weight as those who made half the effort.
How can that be? Well, it turns out that our bodies tend to like to stick to the status quo. To lose weight, we have to use our fat reserves for energy, which means overall, we need to lower our calorie intake to expense ratio. But creating this negative energy balance triggers protective mechanisms meant to prevent starvation. Our bodies compensate for the missing calories by eating more or becoming more sedentary overall. That’s what happened to the men who worked out twice as hard—though they burned double the calories during their workouts, they ate more calories per day, which may explain why they lost less weight than expected.
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