A woman at a local Weight Watchers here in Los Angeles lost 90 pounds this past year. As a way of celebrating her accomplishment and to inspire the other members, she was asked to speak at a large WW meeting about how she reached her goal. She stood up front, knowing full well that exercise was the theme of the week, and preempted her speech with an apology: She hadn’t exercised once in the full year she had lost all the weight. Her goal had been to simply transform her diet, to make it a thorough lifestyle change, and she didn’t want to lose focus by working out as well. Now that she’s got her diet down, 2010 is all about exercise.
When I heard this, I already knew that exercise and weight loss are not necessarily friends. Yet to think that someone can lose 90 lbs by dieting alone seems to go against the “diet and exercise” mantra we’ve been getting for years. In fact, as a recent Time article pointed out, exercise often prevents weight loss because people “reward” themselves with treats after they work out, except the treat has more calories in it than the person just burned. Another article (which I can’t find for the life of me) studied four groups of women. The first only dieted, the second dieted and exercised, the third exercised, and the last changed nothing. The women who only exercised and did nothing lost the least amount of weight, whereas the women who dieted lost significantly more. Interestingly, the women who dieted and exercised only lost a few more pounds than the women on diets only. That study and the Weight Watchers hero point to a very clear sign – it’s about the calories that are consumed, not how much time you spend on the treadmill.
The other important thing the Time article, and other recent studies show, is that killing yourself at the gym and then lying around like a lump for the rest of the day is actually worse for you than moving consistently throughout the day. In fact, a study recently came out with findings that even if you do exercise, and then decide to sit on the couch for four hours not moving, your risk of death goes up. Now, the relationship is not direct, and thus subject to doubt. The scientists say it has to do with muscle contractions and glucose levels. The Time article also addresses the fact that other studies have documented that walking, going up stairs, and generally moving throughout the day is good enough. The joint thesis seems to be: keep moving!
Don’t get me wrong, exercise is good for your heart, your mind, and your mood, but hitting the gym everyday apparently isn’t making you any healthier. It might give you a six pack, though. Simple, low key activities that probably have to get done anyway are just as good. Now, I suspect that a six pack won’t come from doing laundry, but perhaps if you have a lot of it…
However, I did my own accidental research on this starting in August, when I went from working out – Pilates and hiking – 3 or 4 days a week to nada until the first week of January. I didn’t gain weight, I only got softer. Now, yes I have a fast metabolism, but normally, I end up gaining weight during my periods of not working out. This time was different. I kept the same healthy diet, but also, we had moved into a walking neighborhood. So most days I was walking at least 20-30 minutes, plus going up and down stairs to my third level apartment. I was losing muscle mass since I wasn’t using my arms to lift heavy things, and my legs and core were less strong, but you couldn’t tell by looking at me. Essentially, my daily motion and my food choices were enough to keep me at my current weight.
Basically, the whole exercise-till-you-fall-to-the-ground-exhausted phenomenon is young. And it doesn’t make most people happy. All you really have to do is move: Walk, clean up, go see the person down the hall instead of calling them, explore your neighborhood, and just meander around your house. The important thing is for you body to be active, especially your muscles.
Here are my qualifiers: Building a solid muscle mass is something I strongly believe in. It gives you strength, energy, and the ability to regain that mass quickly if necessary. The other issue in obtaining that mass is – how? People tell me they hate the gym. I agree. There is nothing less appealing than industrial carpet and sweaty strangers. I decided to try Pilates, which was plenty to get me in good shape, and there are many options out there: Yoga, spin, hiking, gyrotonic, etc. Also, there are always extenuating circumstances to people trying to lose weight, especially for women. Hormone imbalances are particularly evil in that respect. Those type of issues are best discussed with a physician, because treatment may include a special diet.
What I’m saying is, exercise if it makes you feel good. Or if it doesn’t, try to find a method that does. I’m now into spin/yoga classes, and it’s addicting. Also, any movement is good. There doesn’t have to be a serious effort, or sweat, or cramps. Just keep moving. Try not to sit longer than an hour at a time. That may be hard for those of you in cubicle land, or people like me, who write for a living, but you’ll be sharper and more alert if you take a stretch, or a stroll, or run an errand. The pressure to push ourselves harder, sweat more, and strive for perfection at the expense of time and sanity makes many people not want to do anything, when big results can be achieved through small means. Besides, if we were meant to lie around, we’d be invertebrate blobs.
In our culture of self-improvement, I find it heartening that what’s on your plate is more important than how many miles you run. So eat well, move, and exercise if it makes you feel good. But mostly, try to feel good, because life isn’t about being perfect, it’s about enjoying what you have and not driving yourself insane by chasing after something that you can’t.