April 13, 2015

Beware of Using Exercise as a Weight Loss Tool

I started my tumultuous relationship with exercise 27 years ago.  In fact, it was my body building boyfriend who suggested I go to aerobics class due to my increasing waistline (God bless his pointy little head...sitting on his oversize body).  From there, I fell in love with group fitness and the rest is history.  From a very young age, I thought of exercise as a way to lose weight.  I didn't appreciate what working out did for me physiologically or psychological...if it got rid of my muffin top or I could burn off the extra large pepperoni pizza that was good enough for me. 

Very much like a ball and chain, the need to exercise to lose weight can become overwhelming.  Having to constantly plan for it, decline social invitations to do it, and becoming agitated when it doesn't happen.  These are all signs of addiction.

And so it went...on and on and on.  Throughout my 20's, 30's, and mid 40's I would exercise up to 2 hours a day with the same determination as one would see in customer's waiting for a closing out sale.  I suffered through stress fractures, popped ribs, torn muscles, damaged connective tissue, and sciatica that would stop a horse.  I am now dealing with Morton's neuroma (the most frickin' painful and incurable injury of all), hearing loss, and chronic back pain that keeps me up at night...but I'm not complaining! I take full responsibility for the shape I'm in now.  The point I am trying to make is I abused exercise for a long time and now I am paying the price.  As I look back on it, I understand I was stuck in the vicous cycle of exercise as I continued to chase the ideal physique throughout my youth and middle age (without considering the long term repercussions on my health).  Boy...was I stupid!

Thank God things are shifting (at least in my middle-aged world) as researchers scream loud and clear that exercise isn't the solution to weight loss.  There is a greater understanding about the biology of weight loss as the focus is placed on what, why, and how we are eating.  At the same time, many health practitioners are turning to exercise as a way to manage physical and mental health (not fitness or body fat).  It is through this approach that, I believe, exercise should be perceived and practiced.  Like any medication, exercise should be respected and prescribed moderately.  Unfortunately, the band wagon of long distance fitness events continues to roll through every town and community as people sign up in droves for run clinics to prepare for hours of running (only to drop off after the event due to injury or lack of time). 

Linda Bacon, PhD, has written a beautiful book entitled, "Health at Every Size".  This book sparked a movement which sparked facilitator training and now these courses are offered to anyone interested in shifting their perspective.  The underpinnings of her ideas relate to the notion that whatever you do, you do for the health of it.  Exercise, therefore, is about the physiological and psychological benefits (and not about fat loss).  If one exercises for health, one does not have to exercise hard or for long periods of time.  One doesn't need a fancy high tech training outfit or have to lose weight just to join a gym (which many of my female research participants stated in my initial masters research).

As we age, the need for more exercise
becomes more like a hamster wheel
instead of a treadmill.  We will need
more of it to gain less from it IF we
think of it as a tool for fat loss.
What happens if you do decide to use exercise as a tool to manage fat? You will become a desperate 40+ over exerciser with a list of injuries a mile long and nothing to show for it.  The more we rely on exercise, the more we have to exercise to maintain or lose fat as we age.  It is a very vicious cycle and one that doesn't end well for the chronic exerciser.  I have seen it happen way too often.  It happened to me. I can't tell  you what it was that hit me over the head, but over the past year I have worked very hard to reframe exercise as a health practice and appreciate what it can do for me as I age.  When I do find myself on the stationary bike peddling through an episode of Mad Men, I end up asking myself why I'm doing it and what I believe will result from it.  This usually motivates me to get off and focus on a few yoga poses instead . 

Now I am well aware there are people out there (and even reading this blog post today) who will argue with me and exclaim that they lost 100s of pounds through exercise.  I congratulate those people for accomplishing such a difficult task.  BUT...as the research strongly suggests, this weight - should this "looser" discontinue their exercise regime or fail to increase it due to the aging process - will come back over five years. 

So how does one lose fat over one's lifetime? The way I see it we must examine ourselves and our behaviours.  Becoming aware of our emotions and how they effect our eating may be one step.  Examining how much sugar you are eating may be another.  In addition, becoming more appreciative about the body you have may play a large role in the health choices you make.  Finally, and I shouldn't even acknowledge this in public, should you focus on activities, thoughts, and behaviours that enhance your health...the chances are very good that you will lose weight.

That's all I got.

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