Exercising like crazy and still not seeing the kilos come off? Could exercise be causing you to put on weight? This is a topical question at the moment due to recent articles in the media. The good news is that all your hard work in the gym is paying off and there’s research to prove it.
Firstly, exercise (the correct type, amount and intensity – “doing enough of it”) helps you consume calories, burn body fat and tone and build muscle. For some people, their total weight on the scale might not move or may even increase, which could be disheartening. However, your total weight on the scale could be misleading as you might miss the great benefits gained from losing fat while building muscle. So it’s best to use other measures as well, such as measuring your body fat (on the Tracker machine in the Virgin Active Health Clubs) and/or using a tape measure to track your waist measurement, mid-thigh, arms and so on.
What happens when you are exercising really hard and yet do not seem to lose weight or body fat?
Research has shown that some people over compensate in response to exercise, such as eating more food (calories) than what they burnt during a workout, rewarding themselves with treats or bigger portions of food, and/or being less active overall during the day or week. See if you recognise some of these ‘compensatory responses’ below.
“I exercised so hard this morning – I deserve that muffin now!”
You are burning all those calories, but then you pile them back on with what you eat. Check this out…
|You exercise||Energy burned
||Then you eat||Energy consumed||Energy balance|
|10km run along the beachfront||550 kcal (2 310 kJ)||Two fried eggs, bacon, toast and butter||930 kcal (3 906 kJ)||+380 calories (1 596 kJ) – you’ve eaten almost double the calories you’ve burnt|
|45 minutes spinning class||410 kcal (1 722 kJ)||Drink a 500ml sports drink||200 kcal (840 kJ)||-210 calories (882 kJ) – a small calorie deficit, but not much for all that work|
|20 minutes running on the treadmill||150 kcal (630 kJ)||Treat yourself to a frothy cappuccino and muffin||500 kcal (2 100 kJ)||+350 calories (1 470 kJ) – again, you have eaten more than you’ve burnt|
|30 minutes strength training||150 kcal (630 kJ)||An energy bar||200 kcal (840 kJ)||+50 calories (210 kJ) – oh no, once again more calories than you’ve burnt|
Most research has shown that exercise does not actually increase hunger, therefore it does not give you an excuse to eat more. But even if you do feel exercise makes you hungrier, then be aware of it, plan for it and be super-vigilant to stick to your calorie-controlled meal plan that is based on portion control and wholesome foods. Be careful of allowing food to be a reward. How many of us think: “I deserve this because I have exercised”? This will not help you lose weight.
This is not to say that you can’t treat yourself, but if you are trying to lose weight, you have to be aware of your energy balance. Allow yourself a treat once a week or go for a calorie-free treat such as a night at the movies with friends or a manicure at your local spa.
The bottom line: watching what you eat is just as important as exercise.
“I’m exhausted after that morning session. I’m going to bed early tonight!”
Your hard exercise session burnt extra calories, but left you feeling tired and ready for bed early, therefore you are not burning as many calories as you thought you were. What this boils down to is that you shouldn’t exercise at a greater intensity than your fitness level allows for. You need to slowly build up your fitness level so that you can still maintain an active lifestyle on top of structured exercise.
The bottom line: don’t exercise so hard that you’re exhausted for the rest of the day and fall asleep early in the evening.
“As I’m going to gym later, I can afford to sit at my desk all day.”
Relying purely on your exercise session to burn calories doesn’t work because, at the end of the day, you’re burning the same number of calories as if you were active all day. So even if you’ve done your workout, still take the stairs (instead of the lift or escalator), walk as often as possible, cut down on your sitting time – even if it’s just to stand for a few minutes (for example, stand while talking on the phone, during meetings, while watching TV, stretching and so on). Exercise plus a healthy, active lifestyle during the course of the day will help you burn those extra calories. A pedometer is a great way to keep track of your daily activity.
The bottom line: keep yourself active even outside of structured exercise.
“My workout yesterday was really tough, so I’m going to skip it today!”
Many of us have great exercise programmes, but that doesn’t mean that we are actually following them! If your programme says exercise three times a week, don’t skip a session (unless you are sick or injured). You also need to make sure that you are actually doing something at the gym. Strolling on the treadmill while reading your book is not necessarily going to burn the calories to allow you to eat a giant muffin after your session.
The bottom line: stick to your exercise plan as far as possible.
Many of us fall into the pitfalls mentioned above, so the next time you are working out, remember that research shows that it is diet plus exercise that will help you lose weight and maintain that weight loss.
And be assured, exercise does not make you fat – it makes you leaner, healthier and could make you live longer.
Written by Catherine Viljoen, a biokineticist, on the myvirginactive team.
Photo by jypsygen