Last August, the cover of Time Magazine was entitled “The Myth About Exercise.” Underneath the title, in small print, was the comment “Of course it’s good for you, but it won’t make you lose weight. Why it’s what you eat that really counts.” (John Cloud) Inside the magazine another discouraging word proclaimed “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.” Thank you for ruining my day! As if that wasn’t enough, a recent newspaper headline touted a study stating that women over 40 may need an hour of exercise everyday just to maintain a healthy weight. How are we supposed to make sense of all this advice?
I have a personal story to relate on this subject. Well before I was 40, in fact I was 24, I started exercising with a friend who was an avid swimmer. I was not. She literally lapped me time after time while I languidly did the side stroke, the paddle board and a modified version of the crawl. I stopped a lot. She didn’t. Granted, I was new to the sport and new to exercise in general. I’m sure I was burning more calories than before I started swimming. But I fell into a trap. I later recognized it as my own myth about exercise. So, I can tell you right here and now, in black and white, that yes, exercise made me gain weight! There, I said it! I’ll bet you never thought you’d hear me say that, did you? Now before you say “I knew it!,” I’ll tell you what really happened and how it relates to the two articles quoted above.
Exercise didn’t make me gain weight. I did. I mistakenly believed that exercise gave me license to eat. My mantra became “I exercise, therefore I can eat,” and I did. I rewarded myself with pie at lunch. Back in those days, I didn’t eat breakfast so I was famished by break-time at work. Donuts were at the head of the line of choices in the cafeteria and since I was going to exercise later . . . It wasn’t long before my mantra proved to be my downfall. In only six months, I gained over ten pounds and those jeans I talked about last month had their revenge!
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Whether you are 20, 40, or 60-plus, you still need to be aware of the energy equation: calories-in versus-calories out. Does exercise make you hungry? It can, but it wasn’t hunger that caused me to eat more. It was partly reward and also my own misconceptions. I thought that because I was exercising more, I could eat more. I was probably burning at most 200-kcals in the swimming pool. The donut was about 300-kcals and the lemon meringue pie at lunch time was at least that. I was taking in at least 400 in excess calories. I have since learned that walking a mile expends about 100 calories. That puts it in better perspective.
Another trap that often follows regular exercising is feeling that you don’t need to move around as much the rest of the week if you are going to the gym three times a week. Are you stopping for a muffin and a latte on your way home? Are you moving less in general because you are exercising regularly? It really comes down to the total amount of physical activity you are doing on a regular basis. If you are active throughout your day and exercise on top of that, you are more likely to maintain a healthy weight. If you need to lose some weight, adding more activity and exercise while cutting back on your intake of calories will lead to a slow, steady loss.
Do you really need to do 60 minutes of physical activity every day? Does that mean you have to sweat an hour at the gym? It comes down to a combination of physical activity and exercise. What does that mean? All physical activity is movement. Exercise is structured movement. It really means that you need to move more and include a regular exercise program that will get you moving more intensely at least thirty of those minutes most days of the week. Pamela Peake, M.D. and author of Body for Life for Women and a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine says it simply: “You can’t eat with abandon, go to jazzercise three days a week and expect to cut calories. That doesn’t work.” Ouch! But it makes sense.
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I will leave you with this thought and another quote. Inactivity is one of the risk factors that contributes to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and yes, obesity. Obesity then becomes another risk factor. Risk factors become symptoms of disease. Exercise is the medicine that can treat them and lead to a healthier life. According to Dr. Robert Salis, co-director of sports medicine at Fontana Medical Center in southern California, “Even lean men and women who are inactive are at higher risk. So while reducing obesity is an important goal, the better message would be to get everyone to walk 30 minutes a day. We need to refocus the national message on physical activity, which can have a bigger impact on health than losing weight.” In the process of becoming and staying more physically active, something else may happen. You may begin to feel better and, if you don’t fall prey to my myth about exercise, you may even shed a few pounds and help to maintain a new, healthier weight through a balanced program of eating and exercising.
Yours in fitness,
Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Trainer, ACSM