It is time to decouple exercise from weight loss. That boot camp may not make you lose weight, but it will have health benefits.
The two times of the year most likely to nudge non-exercisers to start exercising are the new year, with its round of resolutions, and spring, with its reminder that we’ll soon be wearing fewer layers of clothing when we’re out in public. Unfortunately, the renewed interest in moving more is typically tied to weight rather than wellness. I blame a societal publicity campaign fueled by “fat burning” magazine articles, gym marketing and public-health messages.
It is time to decouple exercise from weight loss. While there is abundant evidence for the benefits of nutritious food for health and well-being, the evidence is even stronger for regular physical activity. That’s true for all people, of all ages, of all weights. But the unfortunate fact remains that many people who aim to improve their eating and exercise habits view it as a means to an end: a lower number on the scale and a smaller size on the clothing rack. Here are three comments about exercise I hear repeatedly, and why they work against us:
“I did a six-week boot camp and didn’t lose any weight, so I stopped going.” The means-to-an-end mind-set can lead to abandonment of new food- and fitness-related health habits if they don’t produce weight loss. Weight is a poor long-term motivator, in part because there’s no guarantee you’ll reach your goal. Health is a better goal, and cultivating a deeper value of self-care. It’s easy to think exercise isn’t “doing anything” because it’s not leading to weight loss, but the truth is it’s doing a lot — just deep inside, where you can’t see it.
“If my exercise doesn’t make me feel like I’m going to die/throw up/pass out, it’s not worth doing.” This is the retooled version of “feel the burn” or “no pain, no gain.” Some people love spin class, while for others it’s a special form of hell. Yet I know people who fall in the second camp who feel like they “should” do spin class because it will burn more calories. Ditto for joyful walkers who feel they “should” run, even though they hate it. Instead of focusing on burning calories, choose types of activity that make you feel good and bring you joy. That will help keep you motivated.
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“My weight is fine, so I don’t need to exercise.” Exercise has been called the most efficient way to maintain health, and has countless benefits for mind and body — at all body weights. In our weight-focused culture, weight has become shorthand for health, but research shows that endurance, muscle strength, flexibility and balance are important for reducing the risk of chronic disease and staying physically independent as we age. Always-thin people who wait until they are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes to form a physical-activity habit will find themselves behind the eight ball.
Even better, exercise has been shown to expand our brain volume and strengthen our neural networks — including those that are associated with habit formation. This may be why many people find it easier to eat healthfully when they’re exercising regularly. The brain changes that happen when we form one healthy habit may “transfer” to another habit. Dismissing exercise because it doesn’t change your body size means you’ll miss out not only on its inherent health benefits, but you’ll miss the benefits of its positive spillover into other areas of your life. So how will you move today?